Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Should Apple feel threatened by Amazon's smart speaker show?

Commentary: When it comes to smart speakers, Amazon seems not to know what people want. Apple, on the other hand, seems completely sure. Should it be?

4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


We have colors. Lots of colors.

Ry Crist/CNET

You're now part of experiment.

You may not know it, but you are.

It's being run by Amazon.

It's throwing as many smart speakers as possible at you and hoping one (or more) of them sticks in your mind and even crawls into your home.

Amazon's brand is built on two essentials: price and efficiency. That will likely work very well at Whole Foods.

It may be a little different, though, when it comes to devices you're supposed to put in your home, devices that should not only be utilitarian but actually entertain you and even lift your spirits.

Which is why it's worth wondering if Apple, which launches its HomePod device in December, is quaking about Amazon's latest attempt at smart speaker saturation. 

Last week, Jeff Bezos' company launched a new Echo, the Echo Plus and the Echo Spot. Oh, and Echo Connect. The Look and Show were revealed earlier this year. Each has a supposedly different reason to exist. Each has a different price. Each is a pebble tossed into the wind toward an ocean.


So far with Amazon's smart speakers, it's just as you might expect. Cheap is working by far the best. It's the Echo Dot, retailing at $50, that's outselling everything else. That's how much Apple charges for a dongle.

Moreover, if there's one promise Apple has made, it's that its device will be well-designed and have exceptional sound quality. Its core, Apple claims, is music. 

You might see this as a mere marketing twist, but it's a very precise emotional promise. 

If Amazon is, as some think, so far ahead in smart speakers, why hasn't it produced the quintessential product that captures the emotions and defines the market? Instead, with all its new products peddled at various price points and purposes, the company is surely signaling that it still has little idea what people really want. 

Worse, Amazon's almost breathtaking lack of design sense means the function and price of each product are the only things that can attract people. How many of those functions are indispensable? 

Apple, on the other hand, relies on superior design, ease of use and a sense of excellence for which you're supposed to pay -- some would say -- disproportionately.

Most who have seen and heard the HomePod have been moved positively

The main thing that may stand in its way of doing what Apple products are supposed to do -- embracing the upper echelons of the market with some sort of ooh and aah attached -- is Siri's hapless grasp of humanity. 

But if the HomePod inspires along the musical spectrum, many may tolerate Siri's haplessness for a little while longer. They're used to it with their iPhones, after all. And goodness, Siri can be everywhere through your iPhone. Amazon doesn't have a phone. So though the company is trying to get Alexa everywhere, it won't find that so easy.

What if HomePod is actually different?

When Apple products fail to move the spirit, it's rarely because someone makes a better product. They tend to disappoint because Apple made an uninspiring one. I think of the iPhone 7 as an example of that.

More often, though, Apple's product ends up being the generic name. Many people still think of phones as iPhones. Tablets are iPads. Those wrist-based devices that tell you how many steps you've taken are Apple watches. Just ask a normal person what Samsung's version is called. 

Is the HomePod really just Apple's version of the Echo and all its little multiplying Bunnymen devices? Or might it end up being something a little different? After all, the iPhone was supposedly not half as good as the BlackBerry when it launched. It proved to be very different.

In the end, then, Apple likely looked at Amazon's show, chuckled a little at the higher-end attempts and took notes about anything worth pinching for future HomePods. 

Amazon might still think it'll win the so-called battle to control your home's basic functions. Its real competitor there is another company that wants and needs to reach everyone at all times: Google.

At heart, though, I suspect Amazon knows what it really is -- a value company with values very different from Apple's. 

It wants to "own" every part of your life, leech-like, just as Google does. Apple, on the other hand, starts with the intention of making you feel good and giving you the simplicity to achieve that. 

Perhaps humanity will one day be painfully rational. Much of Silicon Valley is trying to make it so. For now, though, we're blissfully emotional. Which is why Apple's essential ethos ought to come through in the HomePod -- the caveat being that Apple's products haven't been too inspirational of late.

I just went to Amazon's home page. The smart speaker message was large, clear and very rational: "Echo Dot. Buy 3, save $20."

Then Amazon tried to sell me a women's coat.