IN NEWS THAT might help you make some sense of your fragmented, frustrating device setup, Amazon announced today that its Echo devices will support Apple Music starting December 17. It’s a small breakthrough in the streaming wars, one that should help bring some sense to your streaming strategy. And you’ve got Apple’s increasing need to branch out beyond hardware to thank.
When the Apple Music Alexa skill goes into effect next month, all you’ll need to do to tap into Beats 1 is enable it and link your account. The simplicity of switching it on belies the tangled threads that will have gotten it there in the first place. Amazon and Apple, after all, historically aren’t exactly best buds.
But circumstances have led both companies to a point where they actually have to consider what’s best for their customers. In this case, that means making one of the most popular music platforms in the US available on the most popular voice-activated speaker.
“They’ve had an on-again, off-again tussle over things like whether Kindle readers can read Kindle books on the iPad, and then years later it was whether you could buy Apple TV devices on Amazon,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. “But that freeze between the two companies has been thawing a bit.”
You’ve seen signs of that détente already. Amazon’s Prime Video app finally arrived on Apple TV a year ago, after a long holdout. And just a few weeks ago, the companies came to an agreement to put the latest Apple products on Amazon’s digital shelves. Putting Apple Music on Echo, though, may be the biggest breakthrough yet, especially for consumers.
“If you have a customer who has your device, they also need to access your services wherever they happen to be.”
JAMES MCQUIVEY, FORRESTER RESEARCH
While Apple sells a connected speaker of its own, the HomePod is expensive and relatively limited. Meanwhile, Echo devices have steadily taken over the world, with Amazon selling a reported 50 million Alexa-powered speakers as of this summer. Apple Music, meanwhile, has at least 50 million subscribers. Anyone who lives inside the intersection of that Venn diagram has been needlessly hamstrung by the two not playing nice. Sure, they could get Apple Music to play by connecting their iPhone to their Echo by Bluetooth, but that negates the whole purpose of owning a speaker you can shout at.
What Amazon gains is fairly straightforward. It may have the smart assistant lead, but the Google Home family of devices poses some serious competition. If it wants Alexa to truly succeed as a platform, it needs to serve everybody.
“Music is one of the most popular features on Alexa” wrote Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices, in a blog post announcing the news. “We are committed to offering great music providers to our customers, and since launching the Music Skill API to developers just last month, we’ve expanded the music selection on Alexa to include even more top-tier services.”
If anything, the addition of Apple Music just builds on Amazon’s existing inclusiveness. “When they first announced that they were going to put Spotify in the Echo platform, a lot of people raised an eyebrow. But that’s been consistently Amazon’s approach: serve the customer first and worry about the potential conflict later,” McQuivey says.
Apple, then, presents the more interesting side of the equation. No company has valued walled gardens more, or benefited more from them. But over the past two years, two trends have stood out in Cupertino: iPhone unit sales have flattened a bit, and revenue from services like Apple Music has steadily increased. While the sales numbers are still nowhere near those of the iPhone, Apple’s Services segment reliably brings in more money than iPads or Macs, and it continues to grow steadily. But it can’t maintain that trajectory on its own.
“The more Apple wants to get into services, or the more that they believe that their services business should grow, the more they’re going to have to embrace other platforms,” says Ben Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies. “If you’re a consumer and you’re spending money on a subscription, you expect to get that in more than just one place.”
All of which becomes increasingly important given Apple’s broader streaming ambitions; it plans to launch a suite of original video content sometime next year.
There’s recent precedent here. Apple had already made Apple Music available in the Google Play Store for Android devices. But there’s maybe an even more apt example to point to that goes back years: iTunes. Apple’s desktop music player launched as an Apple exclusive in 2001. But the company quickly realized that alienating hundreds of millions of PC owners also held the iPod back. In 2003, it launched iTunes for Windows.
“In that world, the service helped you sell devices. Now Apple has shifted. They understand that the services are just as important in their customer relationship as the devices,” says McQuivey. “If you have a customer who has your device, they also need to access your services wherever they happen to be.”
Which doesn’t mean that it’s everywhere. You still can’t access Apple Music on Google Home devices, for instance. And going the other direction, a limited Spotify app only just launched this month for the Apple Watch. Frustrations still abound for anyone who dares rely on more than one tech company at a time.
But if voice assistants really are the platforms of the future, at least they seem not to be repeating the mistakes of the past. They’re a little more open, in ways that make your life a little bit easier. And for now, at least, it makes as much sense for the companies pulling the strings as it does for you.