- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
It seems pretty clear that 2017 is going to be the year that Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant really begins to hit its stride, going from a fast-growing niche product to a mainstream must-have.
While Microsoft and especially Google have made their competitive strategies clear – even Samsung and Baidu have started to make rumbles in the market – there’s one elephant that, notably, isn’t in the room yet: Apple, the most valuable company in the world and a notorious latecomer to any new product category.
While Apple recently built Siri into the Apple TV, the company is said to be working on a direct competitor to the Amazon Echo – one that would apparently be more advanced than anything we’ve seen, down to a possible facial-recognition camera so it knows who’s talking. That device, if and when it comes out, would bring Apple’s 5-year-old Siri assistant head-to-head with Alexa.
And the clock is ticking. Every Alexa-compatible Echo speaker, lightbulb, thermostat, refrigerator, and car that people buy today they probably won’t replace for many years, meaning the critical market for early adopters is already self-selecting outside of whatever Apple has up its sleeve.
- AP/Jeff Chiu
Meanwhile, Wall Street is worried as ever that Apple is falling way behind as computing moves past the touch screen and into augmented reality, virtual reality, and yeah, artificially intelligent voice-powered assistants like the Echo. It doesn’t help that sales of Apple’s all-important iPhone are showing signs of sagging.
But when Apple introduced its AirPods wireless earphones in September, it also took the lid off of the W1 chip, a little technology for improving Bluetooth audio that lays the groundwork for Apple’s next big thing. It’s already here, and it’s going to make a big splash in the months and years to come.
What the heck is W1?
In many ways, the AirPods, Beats Solo3, and other W1 devices are standard Bluetooth headsets. They’ll work with any Android phone, Windows PC, or Blackberry you might happen to have lying around, the same way Bluetooth gadgetry always has.
But the magic happens when you’re using a W1 headset with an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or Mac.
First, you turn it on next to your unlocked iPhone or iPad. Second, you click “connect.” Now they’re automatically paired with any other Apple gadget that’s signed in to your iCloud account. Switching from iPhone to Mac and back takes a click.
- Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
Apple’s W1 confers other benefits, too. When you’re using it with an Apple gadget, the chip grants tremendous range – with the Beats Solo3, I was able to vacuum my entire small house with my phone charging in the bedroom without losing audio. Better yet, W1 uses some kind of magic optimization technique to greatly extend battery life.
The next W1 device we know about is the long-delayed BeatsX fitness earbuds. Going into 2017, expect a lot more W1-powered headphones to hit the market, most – if not all – manufactured by Apple and its Beats subsidiary.
So what does it mean for Apple?
The W1 does something crucial for Apple right off the bat: It provides something cool, different, and convenient in a way that requires you to own all kinds of Apple gadgetry. Not only has the W1’s it-just-works experience swayed me from considering an Android phone, it also caused me to spend considerably more time on my Mac after a year and a half on Microsoft’s Windows 10.
It means Apple has something that no Android phone – or Windows laptop, for that matter – can match. It also opens the door for a world where people are always wearing their headphones, with Apple’s Siri only a tap away.
- Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
This, in turn, means that Apple’s competitor to the omnipresent Alexa is hiding in plain sight – in the iPhones and iPads that more than a billion people own and in the wireless headphones that Apple is so keen to push. In other words, the W1 brings together all the pieces of the Apple puzzle, from Siri to Beats to the iPhone, in a way that hasn’t been done before.
There are hurdles ahead, though. Siri can handle basic tasks just fine, but because Apple has been so cautious with its nascent smart-home strategy, it’s not as great a hub for home appliances and the like as Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem. Still, Siri boasts compatibility with high-profile apps like Uber, Venmo, Skype, and your phone’s messages app so it can read you your texts.
And as a nice bonus for Apple, Siri currently can control only the Apple Music streaming service and your downloaded music. In a weird way, the push toward voice controls seems likely to have a nice spillover effect for Apple’s subscription services as people look for the best and easiest integrations with their new setups.
I’m going to call my shot right here based on these factors: Apple’s Echo competitor, whenever it arrives, won’t have Siri built in, but rather will use Bluetooth and the W1 chip to connect directly to your iPhone and call Siri from there. It would look like the Amazon Echo or Google Home but use the W1’s insane range to link to your phone from anywhere in your house. This would accomplish Apple’s goal of requiring you to have an iPhone to use its best stuff.
Looking further ahead, if Apple is indeed working on augmented reality, as everyone thinks it is, Siri could be your holographic assistant, with your W1-enabled headphones acting as the way you talk to it. After all, if you’re going to hold a conversation with imaginary computer people, you wouldn’t want to type your answers.
And, hey, if you want to get really weird with it, Apple’s long-rumored, not-soon-to-be-released car would be a great vehicle (pun intended) to get W1 going in the car.
If you’re an Apple employee who wants to tell me I’m wrong (or right) about the future of W1, here’s my email.