Apple had a slew of interesting announcements at its event on Monday. But one that stood out to me — and I feel didn’t get as much attention — is the new pricing tier of Apple Music. A new “Voice” tier will offer the entire Apple Music library to subscribers at a reduced rate of just $5 per month: The catch is you have to use Siri to access it, eschewing the standard Apple Music visual and typing-friendly in-app user interface.
Apple didn’t share why it is launching this plan, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the iPhone-maker is lowering the price barrier and persuading more people to use Siri because it wants to gather more voice data to train and improve its voice assistant.
“We’re excited that even more people will be able to enjoy Apple Music simply with their voice,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said at the event.
I can’t imagine any other compelling reason why the Apple Music Voice plan exists, especially since Apple is likely offering the new service with much lower margins than the standard plan, as the licensing agreements with labels remain the same to offer up the entire Apple Music catalog.
Again, this is just speculation, but I think given the stiff competition between Apple and Spotify, if the Swedish firm could offer its streaming service at $7-8 a month to beat Apple Music at price, it would. And Apple is taking some loss with the new subscription tier because it really wants to gather vast amounts of data. When I tweeted this theory, my colleague Alex wondered aloud why wouldn’t Apple just make the subscription free? I suppose Apple, a $2.5 trillion company, can technically swallow that much of a hit on the balance sheet, but it doesn’t want to attract more criticism from standalone music streaming firms such as Spotify. It’s already facing scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior on a number of fronts.
Tech firms feed their AI models with vast amounts of data to improve the services’ capabilities. Even as Siri has considerably improved over the years, the general consensus among many people who work in tech and the masses alike is that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are far superior.
It’s likely that Apple has already been gleaning such voice data from existing Apple Music users, but as a friend suggested, “the point is this — this feature always existed. It’s just that they’d put a high paywall. They’ve lowered that wall now.” In addition to lowering the barrier to entry, making Music voice-only via the new plan means people have to engage with Siri to make use of it; Siri is a feature for standard Apple Music subscribers, but it’s highly likely that most users primarily or exclusively access the content via the app’s UI.
If you want an example of what can happen to voice-powered assistants when you require that users treat it as a voice-first or voice-only service, look at Amazon’s Alexa. Out of the gate, Alexa had to be accessed by voice. This allowed Amazon to not only collect massive amounts of training data for its Alexa algorithms, but also helped train users about how to use it to maximum effect.
Understanding accents and dialects
Another reason why I think my theory works is the markets where Apple plans to offer this new subscription tier first: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Having India, Spain, Ireland and France in the first wave of nations suggests that Apple is looking to amass a wide-range of dialects and accents from across the globe. On a side note, voice search is very popular in many markets, including developing nations such as India, and in markets like China and Japan where text input can sometimes be unnecessarily complex versus spoken word. (A Google executive told me once that the surprising mass adoption of voice searches in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market and where Android commands about 98% of the pie, helped the company improve Google Assistant and prompted more aggressive approach to innovate on the voice front.)
Siri is often framed as a bit of a laggard in terms of its competence versus the rest of the voice assistant competition, and Apple’s latest move in services could be an attempt to help it close the perceived gap, while offering customers a discounted way to onboard to its music streaming service.