Amazon's Echo speaker has been the surprise hit of the past couple of years, taking the awfully fragmented smart home tech market and giving everyone a central device to communicate with. Its popularity has prompted plenty of copycats, and a new Bloomberg report indicates that Apple is stepping up its own efforts to offer a competitor. An Echo-like device, built around Apple's Siri voice assistant software, is said to have left the R&D stage and entered prototype testing inside Apple's labs.
Apple has already laid much of the groundwork for creating what we might call a Siri speaker, having opened up Siri to third-party developers and also made it available on macOS computers as well as mobile iOS devices. The next logical step is indeed to anchor Siri inside the home, where Bloomberg's report fleshes out a few more of the details. The device in question is said to serve many of the same purposes as an Echo, controlling appliances, locks, lights, and curtains via voice controls.
In order to differentiate itself, Apple will reportedly focus on offering more advanced microphone and speaker technology, though no specifics are as yet known. Some of the prototypes under consideration also include facial recognition, which may be used to perform automatic adjustments based on knowing who is in a room or their emotional state. But Bloomberg cautions that it's still a project in its early stages that could be scrapped altogether if the results don't live up to Apple's expectations.
One approach that Apple had considered, but ultimately abandoned, was to build all this Echo-like functionality into the Apple TV. But tacking home controls onto a TV entertainment system doesn't seem like a natural fit, which is probably why Apple agreed with Amazon's belief — also echoed by Google and its Google Home speaker — that dedicated hardware is required. With Apple HomeKit already recruiting partners for Apple's assault on the smart home, the major key missing is the speaker itself, which is evidently making progress through Apple's internal development program.