January 6, 2017
Apple was the big winner of the touch UI era but is doing little to challenge Amazon and Google as the world turns to voice.
Voice-controlled gadgetry has been the dominant theme of CES 2017, the trade show that sets the annual agenda for the consumer electronics industry. Much of the talk has focused on domestic devices such as the Amazon Echo and the apparent battle for control of the living room, but the significance of the voice UI extends far further.
Take smartwatches for example. What should have been obvious from the start is now painfully apparent in the early decline of the segment – a touch UI is useless on a 1.5-inch screen. Clearly we need another way of interacting with wearable tech if it is to become genuinely useful, rather than merely a piece of early-adopter bling.
If you think about it the touch UI is only really useful for smartphones and tablets. People still use the good old keyboard and mouse for productivity and the smartphone largely failed to supplant the time-honoured remote control for the telly. Yes, touchscreens are increasingly cropping up in retail environments, but those are still mainly variations on the tablet theme.
The mass market is currently and understandably reluctant to drop 400 notes on a tiny, defeatured smartphone, But what if, when paired with some discrete wireless headphones, all input was voice and all output audio? The smartwatch could then supplant the smartphone in all non-visual tasks, including messaging, navigation, even reading via text-to-voice. The phone could then be relegated to the role of video consumption device much as the tablet already has in many homes.
The Holy Grail of the voice UI era, however, has to be automotive – the definitive hands-free environment. While texting-and-driving is on the decline thanks to aggressive law enforcement, car infotainment systems are becoming increasingly complicated and are all, of course, touchscreen based. We are rapidly reaching the point where interacting with infotainment systems is no less distracting than using a phone.
The solution, once more, is voice. If the in-car voice UI was sufficiently intuitive, responsive and comprehensive then you could keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel (to paraphrase The Doors) at all times. Even things like headlights and windscreen wipers could be controlled by voice, let alone all the clever new digital stuff even the writers of kitsch 80s TV hit Knight Rider would barely have dreamed of (see clip below).
And with all due respect to the Digital Living Room, or whatever we’re calling the smartification of that part of the house, the potential offered by automotive for the tech sector on the whole is far greater. While telling Alexa to play some music is nice-to-have, talking to your car will soon become a must-have and the winner of voice UI is likely to win the connected car too.
Once we’ve cracked the connected car we’ll move seamlessly to the driverless car, which on first consideration might make all this talk of voice UI moot, given the absence of said driver. However the main use of these autonomous vehicles, on which the stagnating global car industry is counting, will be as taxis, and if anything they will need a robust voice UI even more than regular cars to take requests from punters.
So what’s all this got to do with Apple, you might reasonably ask, having gullibly fallen for our click-bait. The answer right now is: very little, and that’s the point. Microsoft was the winner of the keyboard and mouse UI era, Apple of the touch era, but so far Amazon and Google are making all the running in voice. Ford, for example, announced support for Alexa in its SYNC 3 AppLink connected car platform at this very CES (see second video clip).
As The Verge points out Apple is still wrestling with the digital home and not doing even much of a job with that. The standard Apple walled-garden approach is manifested in this setting via HomeKit, which allows third parties to make smarthome kit that can be controlled via iOS devices. Apple may end up getting this right but HomeKit still focuses on the touch UI of iPhones and iPads while competitors are effectively using the living room as a testing ground for their voice initiatives. Even victory in the living room for Apple could prove Pyrrhic.
The irony of all this is that Apple was a voice UI pioneer via Siri, which marked the first voice-controlled digital assistant to be launched natively on a smartphone back in 2011 in the iPhone 4S. To be fair Apple has integrated Siri into things like the Apple Watch and its CarPlay infotainment effort, but the criticism Siri received five years ago still applies – it’s just not useful enough yet.
This is the real reason why Apple should be worried about the early lead Amazon and Google are establishing in voice UI via Alexa and Assistant. In the relatively benign, low-risk environment of the living room they can field-test their voice UIs, continue to evolve the AI platforms that drive them, and find out what end-users actually find useful.
Maybe Apple will prove us wrong and is just waiting until CES finishes to deliver one of its seismic, epoch-defining reveals. This doesn’t seem likely, however, and history is replete with dominant companies failing to read the writing on the wall. We’re not saying CES 2017 is Apple’s Kodak moment, but it risks losing touch with its competition if it doesn’t raise its voice game soon.
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