I’ve been testing Amazon.com Inc.’s new Echo Show 15. My takeaway: It’s time for Apple Inc. to get serious about the smart home and launch a giant iPad as a new hub. Also: Covid-19 again disrupts Apple’s retail operations and return-to-work plans, the company has a new office in Southern California, and the head of Apple University is gone.

The Starters

The original Apple HomePod.

Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

Apple knows that the success of its product ecosystem depends on being everywhere its customers are. 

It has iMacs on desks, iPads and MacBooks in backpacks, Apple Watches on wrists, iPhones in pockets, Apple TVs in living rooms and AirPods in ears. In the future, it may have headsets on faces and self-driving cars on roads.

But Apple has been a laggard in one key area: the home. It’s way behind rivals such as Amazon and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in smart speakers and related devices—and not by design. Apple knows the importance of the home market.

That’s why it launched HomeKit in 2014, letting customers control appliances from iPhones and iPads, and debuted the HomePod smart speaker in 2017. The initial HomePod was a flop, but a newer $99 version has sold better. HomeKit also has picked up some steam by gaining support for more types of accessories.

Still, Apple has just 5% of the smart speaker market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon, with its Alexa voice assistant, accounts for 69% of sales, with Google coming in second at 25%. 

And Apple lacks a do-it-all home hub—a device with a screen—making it all the harder to catch up.

Amazon Echo Show 15.

Photographer: Mark Gurman/Bloomberg

Apple could learn a thing or two from its rivals. After testing out Amazon’s new Echo Show 15 and the Facebook Portal—from the company now calling itself Meta Platforms Inc.—I think I know the path forward: a giant iPad.

I have found the Echo Show 15—with its large display—to be a compelling device for checking the weather, controlling smart home appliances, watching security footage, and reading notes and lists each morning. While widgets are currently limited on the device, I do think the big touch screen is a compelling platform if Amazon and developers choose to take advantage of it.

The speakers and microphones also provide a solid experience, whether it’s for Alexa voice control, watching videos or listening to music. And I’m a fan of the Echo Show 15’s versatility: It can be screwed on to a wall like a picture frame, or it can rest on a stand in either portrait or landscape position.

But for all the device’s strengths, Apple could probably make a far better one. A central home device from Apple could eliminate some of the Echo’s flaws, such as its thicker-than-necessary design, sluggish and limited software, and a subpar camera. 

Amazon Echo Show 15.

Photographer: Mark Gurman/Bloomberg

While this is obviously a lot simpler on paper than in the engineering lab, turning the iPad into a home device won’t be as hard as inventing the original iPhone. Apple already has most of the components figured out.

You can imagine the company stretching out the iPad to 15 inches, something I’ve reported that Apple is exploring, making the device a bit thicker to fit more powerful speakers and relocating the camera to a landscape-first orientation. Throw in a rear-facing power plug and wall-mount support, and you have Apple’s take on the Echo Show. 

Apple would immediately have an edge over Amazon in software because it has the App Store, and including a high-end camera system and speedy processor should be no issue. The company could even create a new software layer—let’s call it Home mode—that optimizes the device for stationary usage. 

The best part is that this product could double as a regular iPad and laptop replacement that you can take anywhere. 

Amazon Echo Show 15 compared with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Photographer: Mark Gurman/Bloomberg

But there are two major caveats.

First, If Apple decides to turn the iPad into a giant home device, it won’t want to compromise on quality and features. That means it’s going to be expensive. The Echo Show 15 is $250. A 12-inch iPad Pro starts at $1,100. Imagine the price of a 15-inch version. 

But Apple doesn’t typically worry about charging a premium price, even if that means lower sales numbers. Let’s not forget that the original HomePod was double the price of competing products, and that the company’s upcoming mixed reality headset will probably be at least four times the price of current VR gear. 

Second, Siri still needs work understanding users, tapping into third-party services and taking the desired action. Apple has many thousands of people working on this, but Siri’s quality and capabilities still lag behind those of Alexa and Google Assistant. 

A high price and a lackluster voice assistant won’t turn Apple into the king of smart home devices, but moving in this direction could be the beginning of a real presence. And that would be a good thing for the industry and the Apple faithful. 

The Bench

The Apple Park campus. 

Photographer: Sam Hall/Bloomberg

Apple plans a new office in Southern California for wireless chips. When it’s time for Apple to develop a new in-house chip, it typically goes to where expertise for that technology exists. Two years before Apple chip chief Johny Srouji told staff that development of in-house cellular technology was underway, he started building an office and recruiting in Qualcomm’s backyard in San Diego.

That development strategy and pattern has expanded to Apple offices in Oregon near Intel Corp., campuses in Florida near Advanced Micro Devices Inc., and across Europe. Next up is Irvine, a city about an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles. Irvine is known for its wireless chip expertise and is home to Apple suppliers like Broadcom Inc. and Skyworks Solutions Inc. 

If history is any indication, we’re only years away from Apple-designed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips and antennas to go along with its future modems. 

From the Apple scoop machine

Be the first to know what’s next in tech from Mark Gurman’s Power On newsletter.

Apple delays its office return deadline for the fifth time. Wednesday morning I got word that Apple was close to delaying its office return plans yet again. This time, however, I was told the change wouldn’t include a new date. Sure enough, later that afternoon, an email from Tim Cook dropped into inboxes of employees. The news: “We are delaying the start of our hybrid work pilot to a date yet to be determined.”

Given the rise in cases and the spread of the omicron variant, this wasn’t entirely surprising. But Cook was quick to note that many employees have already returned—they just don’t have to come back yet.

An Apple store in Miami. 

Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Apple requires shoppers to mask up, and stores temporarily close. The Covid resurgence also has prompted changes at Apple’s retail stores. The company is now requiring shoppers at all U.S. locations to mask up. That policy had previously been in place for only about half of the company’s American locations. And Apple will again limit capacity. The company had to temporarily shut several stores (one in Brickell City Centre in Miami; its store in Annapolis, Maryland; a location in Honolulu; its Eton store in Ohio; an outlet in Houston; and its downtown Ottawa location) because of rising Covid cases among employees.

Roster Changes

Podolny at Bloomberg headquarters in New York in 2005. 

Photographer: Jonathan Elmer

The dean of Apple University graduates. Everyone has heard about Apple’s hardware and software engineering divisions, its teams working on self-driving cars and augmented reality headsets, and its legendary marketing staff. But another important division is less known to the public: Apple University. This group was created by Steve Jobs around 2008 to instill Apple’s business practices in a new generation of managers.

The in-house management training school has been led by former Yale School of Management Dean Joel Podolny since its inception. Now, he’s left for a startup. The training program, which includes former Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley professors, also offers classes taught by top Apple executives like Cook himself. It’s now run by a pair of Podolny’s former deputies. We shall see how that affects Apple in the long run. 

Post Game Q&A

Q: Will Apple launch a new external monitor for its latest Macs?
Q: Do you think Apple will drop the MacBook Air name as part of the big revamp next year?
Q: What of significance are you expecting from CES in January?

Email me, or you can always send me a tweet or DM @markgurman.

I’m on Signal at 413-340-6295; Wickr and Telegram at GurmanMark; or ProtonMail at [email protected].