tl;dr: Apple has left a void. Amazon and Google are filling it.
What happened to Apple?
Remember way back in 2009, when Apple used to define new categories of products for us?
The iPod showed us what portable music players should look like. The iPhone taught us that smart phones should have touch screens and no keyboards. The iPad showed us that tablets should be… iPads.
Laptops should be made of metal, accessories and packaging and websites should be white.
Apple led, and other manufacturers followed. Laptop manufacturers still work hard to make their laptops as much like MacBooks as possible, and Samsung phones are barely distinguishable from iPhones.
But something new is happening.
In late 2014, Amazon, the online retailer, shipped a category-defining voice assistant for the home.
It felt like an Apple move: the Echo wasn’t the first voice-activated speaker on the market, but it was the first one that really worked. It worked well enough that we see Amazon’s vision of the future. It seemed to say, this is what home voice interfaces will look like.
In fact, this change started before Echo. Amazon shipped the Kindle, which defined the digital book market. A book reader is a Kindle, a Kindle is a book reader. They own that market.
That’s two new consumer electronics categories that Amazon has defined for us. We might have dismissed the first as a fluke, especially given Amazon’s history in books. But, after a second category-defining launch, it’s hard to ignore that something special is happening at Lab126.
Meanwhile, Google shipped the surprise-hit Chromecast. Then Chromecast for Audio, then the Home speaker, sliding sideways into the world of home voice interfaces.
Now Amazon and Google are shipping new products at a ridiculous pace. There are three versions of the Echo, and Google’s about to ship its fourth version of Chromecast. Not bad for a couple of years.
Both companies are also building sizable organizations to manage supply chains, inventory, distribution, and support for their new consumer electronics divisions. They’re taking consumer hardware very seriously, jumping into the void that Apple left.
They did buy Beats. I’m not sure why.
Of course, it’s impossible to know what Apple is doing behind the scenes. Maybe they’ll ship a Siri speaker that blows our minds. Or some other new device category that we’re not even smart enough to anticipate.
But it doesn’t look like it to me. I see them unnecessarily choking the HomeKit ecosystem. I see them making product decisions based on ecosystem strategy (= sell more iPhones) instead of user delight.
We consumers will be okay, because an online retailer and a search company are grabbing the innovation baton.
But still, I’m kinda sad.
Apple, how about getting back in the game?
Daniel is co-founder of Beep Networks. He previously worked on the early Android and Access teams at Google.