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Speakers are Smart. But Now What?

Immediately following the holidays, Amazon triumphantly announced that tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices were sold worldwide, news that some are heralding at a sign that “the smart home is finally here” But are smart speakers really a sign of a paradigm shift in the connected home? Or will they prove to be little more than a footnote in a much bigger story?

An Exploding Category

Entering 2018, it is clear that smart speakers are one of the hottest consumer technology products around. What started not long ago as a single product, the Amazon Echo, has now exploded into a category full of choice and competition. Google has played a large part in this maturation with its expanding Google Home lineup. 2017 saw the addition of the Google Home Mini and the Google Home Max. And on the software side, Google released a steady stream of new features and integrations throughout the year.

Apple’s entry into the smart speaker market was made all but official with the announcement of HomePod last June, although, notably, the company failed to meet their stated goal of shipping in 2017, Details are still sketchy on what exactly this device will be able to do or when it will ship. And their slowness to get to market, combined with the $349 price tag, may result in an uphill climb in a category growing increasingly saturated by sub-$50 devices. That said, Apple’s entry is sure to make an impact.

Beyond Apple and Google, there a slew of other companies who threw their hats in the ring. Sonos announced the “Sonos One” with Alexa built-in. Support for Google Assistant is rumored to be coming next year. Harman Kardon released the Invoke, the first smart speaker powered by Microsoft’s Cortana. And there are countless other products hitting the market every week from lesser-known companies, most of which are leveraging Alexa’s open platform.

A Paradigm Shift? Or a Novelty?

The general consensus in the press is that smart speakers represent an exciting paradigm shift in the smart home. While I agree that smart speakers ushered in a new and significant era in how we think about voice control, some skepticism is in order when thinking about them in the context of the broader connected home.

Some have argued, effectively in my opinion, that the apparent significance of smart speakers is little more than a mirage.

“…stationary smart speakers [do not represent] the future of computing. Instead, companies are using smart speakers to take advantage of an awkward phase of technology in which there doesn’t seem to be any clear direction as to where things are headed.”

We have an Echo at my home and really enjoy it. But I’ll be the first to admit that it’s role as any sort of central AI is far from realized. Mostly, my three-year old daughter likes to shout at Alexa (who she interestingly talks about as though she’s an actual person). Every now and then she articulates clearly enough to get a response. Then, cue the toddler music and the dancing.

Beyond that, the Echo is a great way for me and my wife to enjoy music, check the weather, set kitchen timers, etc. But it’s far from a primary means of control; that’s still the realm of apps, physical switches, and handheld remotes. And the Echo certainly hasn’t represented a paradigm shift in the way I think about and interact with my home.

These sort of basic use-cases certainly appear to be the norm. Anecdotally, I hear the same from just about everyone I speak with. Which begs the question: What role will smart speakers actually play in the future of the smart home?

What Now?

What is most significant about smart speakers is not the products themselves, but what they represent: a land grab in the consumer connected home. This is particularly when you look at the popularity of inexpensive solutions like the Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini. The speed with which this category is racing to zero in terms of hardware pricing is a clear sign that companies like Amazon and Google are making a larger play, scrambling to gain a foothold in the home for their broader platforms.

The next step for these companies will be to aggressively push their platforms beyond the constraints of a single hardware category (i.e. a stationary smart speaker). We are already seeing a growing number of examples — think voice control built into appliances, TVs, and thermostats. I expect this to “voice control everywhere” trend to continue as we move through 2018. While today many see smart speakers as synonymous with voice control, soon they will be nothing more than another instance of our platform of choice. From our cars, to our appliances and light switches, to our wearables and phones, voice control will be there.

The significance of smart speakers is not in the category itself, but rather that, when it comes to the elusive mainstream connected home, companies like Google and Amazon have finally established a foothold. Where their platforms expand from here will prove to be a much more significant chapter in the connected home.