By:   Dwight Gilbert Jones Poort Design

The release of Facebook’s Portal has drawn comparisons with the apparent dominance of Amazon’s Echo/Alexa devices, and with Google’s Home Max speaker and related OEM Assistants. The consensus seems to be that Facebook has launched an over-intrusive camera, that Apple trails badly, and that regardless of its alleged superior sound, their HomePod as a standalone speaker cannot match the Alexa juggernaut or Google’s knowledge-based search capabilities.

Apple’s hardware competitors share one fatal weakness, however – their ecosystem is Web blind, because their ‘smart’ displays are deliberate crippleware.

The industry press tends to accede to the premise that the major players – Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung each pursues its own vision of a proprietary ecosystem, whereby consumers are held within a walled garden and limited to the digital offerings and markets it affords. Ergo the carousel of music services all vying for dominant use via their own or licensed audio streaming. As music currency is there to be scooped, streaming is the low hanging fruit. Independent video streaming cannot be pre-empted as readily.

Apple too is a major music carny, as it transitions from iTunes in the Cloud toward streaming music and content on a subscription basis. Outwardly, that seems to be all that Apple is doing, but let’s look a little closer at what may be happening for them inadvertently.

The main issue faced by smart speakers is that they cannot return visual search results, and in this game of Trojans, that is their Achilles’ heel. Ever since the X10 days of kitchen automation, the example of cooking recipes has been seen as a sine qua non, and without a screen to display the food images – well, it’s a non.

Amazon released its Echo Show device to crudely paper over this deficiency, and that is being followed this summer by Google‘s introduction of a “smart display” via a number of licensed manufacturers. Meanwhile Apple has finally released the HomePod with a number of its key features missing, notably multi-room control, along with its need to hand off knowledge-based and visual search results to the iPhone/iPad.

Will Apple bring out its own “smart display” to complement the HomePod’s virtuoso sound capabilities? No.

There is an 800 lb gorilla in this kitchen that gets no mention in the smart home industry, yet is conceded to be the smartest of them all – the iPad. With an estimated 200+ million of them looking for work, the question becomes – what happens if these uninvited hordes start setting up in millions of kitchens, to freely drive any smart speaker they see via Bluetooth?

As a designer for Poort Technologies, I view the kitchen outlet beside your stove as home plate in the automation game, and Poort produces a custom enclosure that mounts any 9.7″ iPad over that outlet. The iPad is always charged, uses no counter space and has no ugly power cable. It runs on just 5V/10W, is great for solar and the developing world, and the same opportunity is there for an Android tablet over that outlet.

Legacy iPads will enter the smart home market like a lost Roman Legion hungry for battle. iPad owners will simply position them in their kitchens any way they can, in reaction to the need for displaying video and images and for completing their independent home networks with video and (hello?) the Web.

This iPad has every advantage over devices like the Amazon and Google displays, who go to such great lengths to wall off that Web they deserve the Little Dutch Boy award.

  • The iPad has a Web browser of course, which the competition does not. This difference is definitive, because it means that you can independently  stream video and music from any source and be free of closed ecosystems, including Apple’s.
  • The network gains a file system. Think of what that means – this a very powerful computer, not a “display screen” or monitor with flash cards.
  • Apple’s Siri, with the iPad always connected to power, is at full strength (unlike with the HomePod) and always listening. If you prefer Google’s Search Assistant, it’s available for iOS and the iPad, whose huge base makes its own rules.
  • The universally supported iPad can utilize any smart speaker at any time via Bluetooth, forming heterogeneous networks with Sonos, Amazon and Google speakers with apparent ease.

This then is the idea – an iPad talking to a house populated with its smart speaker competitors, anchoring HomeKit as the remote access point, having the brains on board to control home or business networks – each built out from one truly smart server root.

An iPad Air or later provides the foundation of a network for Web streaming, family communications and business telephony.  An iPad Pro supports screen notes and enough features to dispel any doubts as to its capabilities vs ‘smart displays’ alone. Why would Apple cannibalize iPad sales by bringing out another Trojan – when it already has a device for the ages that can pair with any speaker to use it as its own, with Alexa and Google at the ready and multiplying?

Indeed, a Digitimes report had a 9.7″ iPad coming for just $259, which hasn’t happened ($299 at Best Buy) but does place the established 9.7″ form factor alongside the “smart display” Trojans of Amazon and Google, cementing the iPad as the obvious option.

The tech giants will each fail in their quest for single-handed rule of the smart home with “curated” Trojan displays. Apple already has that game won, with Web access, computing power, and broad utility. At the same time, Alexa/Echo is so pervasive and capable at multiple levels that it is fair to accept either the Google Home or the Echo as the natural mate for iPads.

Most home innovation will devolve to be peripheral build-out, because of that super-smart iPad in the kitchen. Facebook has come after this niche with a 10-15″ kitchen device called the “Portal”. hello?

They should look carefully at their hands first, this game has a wild card that many of the players already hold.

All will face the iPad’s deep smarts and numbers, and the striking quality of smart Bluetooth speakers for clean sound. Perhaps most disconcerting for Apple is the easy grace the iPad and Alexa have together. Look for those ecosystem walls to come down, and smart home connectivity standards to find acceptance. The kitchen will rule the roost, regardless.

UPDATE :  Amazon announced that the Echo speakers (only) will support Apple Music.