Apple’s biggest week–the World Wide Developers Conference–kicks off on Monday, June 5, with a keynote from Tim Cook.
No, he will not be announcing the new iPhone. WWDC is about wooing developers to keep making all those apps. So it’s usually about Apple’s software, not its hardware.
But rumor has it, we will see new hardware from Apple this year. It all starts with a Siri speaker, which could be just the thing to help bridge the gaps between Apple’s disparate products and operating systems.
Fundamentally, an Apple Watch works differently from a Macbook, which works differently from an iPhone, and none of these products handles tasks or files all that well by working together. With so many Apple devices, you should never have to enter a password, never need to dig for a file, and never have to ask yourself what permutation of Apple screen you need to find to do what.
Voice could link these platforms together with the effortlessness that allows Google searches and documents float between your devices.
The Siri Speaker
According to Bloomberg, Apple is already manufacturing a Siri speaker, similar to Amazon’s Echo. It would hook into Homekit, allowing you to control smart home devices like lights. Aside from that? Details are scant, other than that it would have virtual surround sound (perhaps a silly sounding feature that could actually have a lot of promise–more on that in a moment).
But the Siri speaker will be an important product to watch, because it can call Silicon Valley’s bluff on voice interfaces. Unlike Google or Amazon’s limited implementations, which introduce voice in a few devices here or there, Apple will be the first company to put a personal assistant in vocal reach throughout your entire life.
With the introduction of a rumored Siri speaker, Apple would have Siri in your house–and that’s on top of where Siri has already been, on your iPhone, in your ear(bud), around your wrist with the Apple Watch, on your Apple TV, and, of course, on your computer with MacOS.
Siri itself is still something short of a half-proven product. According to the best estimates, while 98% of iPhone users have tried Siri, most don’t regularly. 20% refuse to at all in public. The place Siri is most successful appears to be the car, where 62% of iPhone users take advantage of the voice controls. This seems to imply Siri (and voice) has potential, but only in the right contexts, where people need to go hands-free, and no one will laugh at them.
To the loyal Apple consumer, Siri is everywhere. If voice interfaces are going to take off, now is the time.
We should be motivated. Apple’s disparate products, from the Macbook to the Apple Watch, run four different operating systems (iOS, MacOS, tvOS, and watchOS). The interfaces don’t match, bringing a learning curve to each Apple product. And the simple act of sharing files between Apple devices can be a pain (even with Airdrop and iCloud). Voice interfaces hold incredible promise to be a no-nonsense, “send this file now!” layer above all of the OSs and screens of different sizes, making conversation the go-to OS of our life. At last, Apple would have all of its Siris in place. And decades of speculation, assuming humans will speak to their computers if given the option, will be put to the test.
All that said, the most important physical feature on Apple’s Siri speaker just might be that hokey-sounding virtual surround sound, which traditionally works when a speaker uses an audio test to learn the shape of the room, and then, rather than sending sound waves straight forward, it ping pongs them around your walls so that it seems like audio is coming from your left, or from behind you.
One problem with Google Home and Amazon’s Echo is that one machine is talking to a room of people. We interrupt and yell over one another, and it can make using shared voice interfaces a real chore because we confuse the machine. And while this is purely speculation, I can’t help but wonder if Apple imagines virtual surround sound as a means to have more intimate conversations with each person in a room–virtually homing in on their position for something more closely resembling a 6-inch voice rather than a 60-foot shout.
Then again, maybe Apple sees the Siri speaker as just the perfect home theater complement to your Apple TV.
Compared to Siri, every other rumor out of WWDC is less interesting to gossip about, but still worth watching.
iOS may be getting a dark mode, with a black background in apps like Messages rather than white. Okay. But some of the more interesting iOS developments might be around the corner. Apparently, Apple is developing a specialized AI chip, which would handle everything from facial recognition to predictive keyboard functions. It’s the type of technology that could ripple across all parts of iOS with predictive interface elements, knowing what you want to tap before you even tap it. But Bloomberg, which broke the story, isn’t even sure those chips will be out this year.
We’ll see other new hardware, too. Updated laptops, at last. And a new, 10.5-inch iPad Pro is also likely to appear. That new iPad isn’t as big as it sounds, though. Apparently, it has about the same footprint as a classic, 9.7-inch iPad, but the screen takes up space formerly occupied by the bezel. Especially if Apple increases stylus support for the iPad, as The Verge points out has been rumored for a year now, the iPad Pro could be making its way to an interesting product to watch again–fulfilling the promise a small, powerful tablet, that’s as handy to use as a piece of paper.