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Why a revamped Apple TV can’t truly be an Echo killer

Published May 26th, 2016 8:45PM EDT

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For those who think that Google and Amazon have effectively already won the market for AI home assistants, you might not want to sleep on Apple just yet. Though Siri is not without its fair share of limitations, its functionality and feature-set has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years. And looking ahead, a report from The Information earlier in the week claimed that Apple has some grand and ambitious plans for its intelligent assistant.

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Specifically, Apple is finally planning to release Siri APIs to developers, at long last paving the way for third-party app integration, an exciting feature which the Amazon Echo already supports. More than that, there are also rumblings that Apple is working on a standalone Siri-based device designed to compete with the Echo and the recently unveiled Google Home. Supposedly, Apple began developing such a device before Amazon even began shipping the Echo.

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, a new rumor from VentureBeat suggests that Apple’s plans for an Echo competitor may be a bit different than initially imagined.

Citing an unnamed source who claims to be familiar with Apple’s plans, VentureBeat reports that Apple’s approach may simply center on a refreshed version of the Apple TV with expanded Siri functionality. The rumored implementation appears to be quite simple: Apple will simply outfit the existing Apple TV with a microphone and a speaker.

The company will build on its enhancements to the Apple TV announced last year, which brought the Siri virtual assistant to the set-top box. A new version of the Apple TV will solve problems with the existing box and remote control, a source familiar with the matter claims.

“They want Apple TV to be just the hub of everything,” the source told VentureBeat.

While the goal of making the Apple TV the hub of the living room is certainly understandable, simply adding a speaker and microphone to the Apple TV doesn’t seem like the ideal way to truly compete with the Amazon Echo or the upcoming Google Home, assuming of course that that is Apple’s intention.

For starters, a device like the Echo is ideally positioned in a centralized location in whatever room a user plans on using it the most. While this may be the living room for some, for others it may be the bedroom or the kitchen. The Apple TV, however, has to be tethered to an HDTV, severely limiting its placement options.

As a result, usability issues may also emerge. Think about it: I’m watching a basketball game on ESPN and want to ask Siri what year Lebron James was born. If the Apple TV is right next to my TV speakers, will the device have a tough time detecting my “Hey Siri” prompt and processing my question? And even assuming that it can understand my query, will I even hear the response if the game is still going on in the background?

Another point to consider is that some people keep their Apple TV units out of sight in a media cabinet, making an ideal setup even more challenging.

Second — and while this obviously doesn’t apply to all users — keeping the Apple TV on 24/7 isn’t practical solution for some users. Personally, I only keep my Apple TV on when I’m using it. Keeping it on otherwise makes watching regular TV something of a hassle, admittedly a first world problem if there ever was one.

I suppose the underlying question is this: Is an Apple TV with always-on Siri functionality compelling enough to further drive unit sales? I’m skeptical, but Apple may have some tricks up its sleeve that haven’t yet leaked out. On a somewhat related note, will a revamped Apple TV be more expensive?

With WWDC just around the corner, we presumably won’t have to wait too long to find out.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.