Understanding the Smart Speaker Phenomenon
The world is a far different place to what it was when Amazon debuted its first smart speaker way back in 2014. At the time, the speaker – called Echo – was a bit of an oddity; It was, for all intents and purposes, a bookshelf speaker that had some interactivity built into it. However, it proved to actually be useful, thanks to Amazon’s proprietary voice-activated personal assistant, Alexa.
Since then, Amazon has worked to expand its range of smart speakers to now include a choice of specialized items. At the same time, the company has continued building upon Alexa’s array of skills to enable seamless integration with third-party applications as well as other smart home devices.
The rest of the world has taken note and has caught up with Echo, with the resulting competition within the space giving rise to a clutch of noteworthy rivals to its dominance. As 2018 shapes up to be the year of the smart speaker, we look at the three leading devices: Echo, Google Home and the new kid on the block, the HomePod from Apple. We also look at what 2018 has in store for the burgeoning smart speaker market.
Amazon Echo – Smart Speaker
Most smart speaker users did not know that they wanted to talk to their houses – until they talked to their houses. Today, three years after the launch of the Echo, many users cannot imagine their day without talking to the handy little speaker. They ask Alexa for the day’s headlines as they brew their morning coffee, tell the Echo to play their favorite podcast as they work out, ask the device to set the timer for the frozen pizza they placed in the oven and ask it to turn out the lights when they retire to bed, among many other things. The Echo is always listening, and Alexa is ready to cater to their every request.
This underscores the incredible success that Amazon continues to enjoy with its likeable little speaker – it fits in effortlessly into your normal daily routine. The device does not demand that you change any of your established habits; It simply helps make a surprising number of your habits better or easier to indulge in. It is often the most futuristic product that many people own, but it feels right at home in the here and now.
After it initially made its beta debut as an invite-only gadget selling for $99, the Amazon Echo now sells for almost $180 – double its initial price. The price might have looked like a fair deal when the Echo was still a shiny, new curiosity. However, a growing number of people feel that this is not the case now that the lineup of Alexa powered devices – as well as the Echo’s competition – has matured.
For instance, the Echo Dot is just as capable, useful and smart as the full-sized device but only comes at a third of the cost. Also, unlike the original Echo, the Dot can be connected to any regular external speaker. This makes the Echo Dot appear to be the best starting point for Alexa devices by a large margin.
In spite of all this, the Echo is still much more than a fancy speaker with Siri-style smarts; It is the type of connected home experience many people had no idea they wanted. It would be a long shot to say that it is the most highly recommended Alexa gadget available today, but it remains a fascinating product worth buying if you can get it on sale.
Google Home – Smart Speaker
After more than two years of running in a one-horse race, CES (The International Consumer Electronics Show) 2017 marked the first major tech showcase where Amazon would have actual competition as king of the hill in the smart speaker segment. Google had released its own smart speaker, Google Home, just a couple of months earlier. With Google’s pedigree in mind, many tech enthusiasts attended the show expecting a fierce showdown between Amazon’s stalwart champion and the new challenger from Google. They were to be sorely disappointed on this occasion: Alexa stole the show, and Google was simply an afterthought.
From then on, Google has worked hard on its product and has achieved significant strides in its efforts to not only catch up with the Echo, but to position its device as a more competent smart speaker than its main competitor. In just one year, Google Home has matured from a simple, competent smart speaker with potential, to a fully developed personal electronics product that you can make the centerpiece of your smart home.
When it was announced in November 2016, the device could accurately respond to commands. This was down to accurate and sensitive commands and the inbuilt Google Assistant. What’s more, Google Home owners who had a Chromecast streamer could easily stream movies on their TVs with a voice command. Although Alexa had nothing that could match Google’s streaming ability, a range of smart integrations and a collection of third-party developers gave Alexa over 10,000 abilities.
Still, Google has done a lot of work in the last year to add cool new features, smooth out the rough edges that it had and make the Assistant software better at controlling smartphones. Surprisingly, at its launch, Google Home could not do some basic things like add entries to a calendar or set reminders. Now it can do both, and more.
Moving beyond basic capabilities, Google Home and Assistant have piled on lots of useful extras to their arsenal, some of which have followed in Alexa’s footsteps, and others that forced her to try catch up.
Apple HomePod – Smart Speaker
The highly-anticipated device was first shown to the public at Apple’s World-Wide Developer Conference in June 2017. The competitor device from Apple, meant to offer some much-needed competition to Echo and Google Home is available in two colors, space grey and white, and retails at $349. In trying to break into a well-established market where the competition has a healthy head-start, Apple has sought to bring its traditional minimalistic design cues to the HomePod. Besides Echo and Home, the new device also has to contend with smart speakers from established manufacturers such as Sonos, who launched the Alexa-powered Sonos One.
With its new venture, Apple seeks to create what the company feels is a perfectly-sized wireless home speaker. The gadget is compact enough to fit anywhere within the home – including in the kitchen or bathroom – but still big enough to fit in six microphones that enable Siri into hear your voice from afar. It also holds a 4-inch woofer and seven tweeters in its base, allowing sound to be dispersed in just the right way to conquer the problem all compact speakers suffer from – lack of stereo separation.
Integration of Siri on the HomePod is a welcome development, since it can perform all the tasks that Siri can do on your iPhone. What this means, however, is that in addition to the benefits of Apple’s AI software, you also get all of its failings. Often, Siri has been accused of failing to understand what it was being asked to do.
That being said, one of the things Siri does well is answering trivia questions. You can ask the personal assistant what is playing as well as who is playing it, and it also continuously updates a personal playlist of your favorite music and links it to your Apple Music account. Paradoxically, this is both a major plus and a flaw at the same time, since you need to open an Apple Music account in order to use Siri as a control for your HomePod.
The first impressions of the HomePod are that it is a powerful, great-looking device that is super-easy to set up. However, the $349 price tag is steep, and does not match up to the sound it produces.
Outlook for 2018 and Implications for Other Personal Tech Products
The global market for smart speaker systems is set to rocket to 56.3 million shipments this year, as the nascent technology braces for increased adoption by consumers across the world. Amazon and Google are widely tipped to stay in the lead thanks to their well-developed Echo and Home products. However, they will continue to be faced with stiff competition from new vendors as the popularity of these devices soars.
Research by NPR/Edison has shown that the increase in uptake of smart speaker systems has major implications on several other related product categories. Naturally, consumers tend to use their smartphones a little less when they purchase a smart speaker as the device is capable of carrying out many of the same tasks, such as looking up information on the Internet and streaming music. In fact, 30% of people who own smart speakers claim that they actually spend less time watching TV.
More than 64% of the people who took part in the study said that they would like to have similar technology installed in their cars. Toward this end, tech giants have been seeking partnerships with automakers to have their virtual assistants integrated into vehicle entertainment systems. It seems the sky is the limit when it comes to smart speakers and their capabilities.