’Smart speakers’ are angling to colonize your living room
Does your home really need a “smart speaker” that can answer questions, call you an Uber, turn off the lights or play music when you ask? You may be about to find out.
Two years ago, Amazon introduced the Amazon Echo, an unassuming, $180 cylinder that sits atop a kitchen counter or bookshelf, acting as a personal assistant that listens to you and does your bidding. Initially, the gadget’s main purpose was a little difficult to discern . But Echo and its Alexa voice recognition software have since become a sleeper hit, with an estimated 3 million gadgets sold as of April, according to research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
Making the home “smart”
Now the Echo is getting some company. On Tuesday, Google announced a similar smart speaker called Google Home, which will be available in November for $129. It will perform many of the same tasks as Echo, including playing music and fielding questions plus controlling compatible lights and appliances. The Google Assistant that works with Home will also be able to access your calendar, Google Maps and other services if you allow.
Apple has opened up its Siri personal assistant so that third-party developers can create new features for it, much the way Amazon has done with its Alexa software. Google Assistant is also opening up to outside apps in December. Sony is working on Xperia Agent , a digital assistant that connects to devices in the home.
All these companies are chasing the smart-home market, which could grow to be a $71 billion global industry by 2018, up from $33 billion in 2013 and $25 billion in 2012, according to Juniper Research. That’s growing fast, although it’s still much smaller than the smartphone market, which the research firm IDC valued at about $412 billion in 2015.
But while the Echo carved out an early success, it remains to be seen whether voice-recognition smart speakers will truly break into the mainstream. “They’re early, (but) the market is early, and we have a long way to go,” said David Smith, an analyst at research firm Gartner.
Learning new skills
One key to the Echo’s success was Amazon’s willingness to work with third-party developers, allowing it to add new functions each week, making it easy for owners of the speaker to discover new ways to use it. (It launched with a few dozen socalled ‘skills’ and now has thousands). “Initially we got it for music,” said Brian Bishop, a business analyst in Tomball, Texas, whose family uses two Echos. “Later, when it controlled the lights and fans and outlets, that just made it even better.”
Interest in smart homes appears to be rising as more people become enamored with their smartphones. A recent online survey of more than 4,600 adults in the US by Forrester Research’s Technographics found 57 percent of them either had used or were interested in using a smart home device such as lights or thermostats designed for remote control.
The Echo’s hands-free operation filled an undiscovered niche in the smart-home universe. Users can just say the wake word “Alexa” and direct it to do a task like turn on lights or set a timer. Since you don’t need to use a smartphone or tablet, that sets it apart from other smart home systems like those offered by Samsung or Apple.—AP