Skating to the Puck in Voice-Driven Tech: Apple Versus Amazon Echo

John Gruber recently posted a link about the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas bringing almost five thousand hotel rooms with the Amazon Echo.

There’s an argument that we’re still in the very early stages of voice-driven personal computing. That, for example, Apple is not too late in putting out an Echo-like dedicated appliance. But Amazon is running full steam ahead here. 5,000 hotel rooms here, 5,000 hotel rooms there, and all of a sudden Echo is the entrenched market leader.

More recently, Gruber responded to a newer headline where authorities are requesting from Amazon any kind of information that the Echo may have picked up from its always-on microphone that scans the room for “Hey Alexa”. His was response: “This was inevitable.”

It was certainly inevitable, and a position that Apple would not want to be in. The early 2016 fiasco in which Tim Cook had to publicly defend the company’s refusal to unlock an iPhone 5c has the potential to put the brand in less-than-stellar taste to the broader public. To broaden the point, remember that a recent photo of Mark Zuckerberg revealed some tape placed over the laptop camera; a technological paranoia has been propagated against hackers, the government, and against the device manufacturers themselves.

Would a company that rides much of its success from brand perception want to enter a fledgling market that is currently rife with privacy and security issues?

Would a company that has for decades eschewed being the “market leader” in most of its devices now stumble over itself in the fight for dominance in a market that could be quickly surpassed by an even more pervasive computing technology?

Neil Cybart of Above Avalon recently brought up a quote that Steve Jobs adapted for the consumer technology industry:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

The times that Apple attempted to jump on a fledgling market, it faltered (Apple Watch, iPhone 5c). But when it’s late, that’s usually when the product is ready to take the high-end of the pie; to make the technology not only worth using, but a total delight in using it. The possibilities that Amazon Echo signifies is delightful, but the reality of robotic commands and an always-on microphone are not so much. Amazon can afford these dings: its consumer cloud services, Prime video UI, and Fire Phone are forgivable because the shopping company does not have to rely on any single of those products for its branding.

However, Apple is a company that lives and dies by its patience and understanding of the puck. Today’s puck is technological paranoia. Tomorrow’s puck will be positioned in the intersection of cultural acceptance and technological intuition. Perhaps Apple TV will be the Trojan horse, or perhaps the iPhone will be rejuvenated by an enhanced “Hey Siri” function. But if Apple is still Apple, the Amazon Echo is but a beta test for a far more premium experience.