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Voice assistant volume is increasing

A survey conducted by Adobe Analytics found that 32% of U.S. consumers owned a smart speaker in September 2018, compared to 28% in December 2017. The report also projected that near half of the U.S. consumer base could own one by the end of December 2018, supported by Adobe Analytics’ finding that nearly 80% of smart speaker sales occur during the holiday season. It is just one study, and there are more conservative studies out there ― but even if the data isn’t completely on the mark, it does uncover the trend of voice-controlled devices gaining ground inside consumers’ households despite use cases and monetization still being blurry.

I own four Amazon Alexa-enabled devices myself: two Echo Dot smart speakers and two Fire TVs. Of the Echo Dots, one was given to me by a colleague to play around with, and another I bought for about one-third the list price from acquaintances who had received it as a gift from their extended family and left it unopened because they felt it was “too creepy.” In our household, the Echo Dots have been used as glorified hands-free music players in our kitchen and one of our bathrooms. The Fire TVs are used as media players first and foremost. Sometimes, we try some of the new skills Amazon sends along in update emails as a fun diversion, but usually that is a one-off activity. I am deeply invested in the Amazon ecosystem, having been a Prime member since its debut and a fan of Prime Video, but it is still challenging to find ways to use Alexa smart-home devices to enhance my other Prime benefits or drive me to Amazon’s e-commerce business.

Adobe’s research seems to align with my anecdotal experience, noting that among the most common voice activities* are asking for music (70% of respondents) and asking fun questions (53% of respondents). The only other activity above 50% is asking about the weather (64% of respondents). So yes, people are using them, but these are not skills that require much depth or complexity or that drive additional revenue for Amazon.

Therein lies the problem for voice-platform providers such as Amazon and Google (Microsoft and Apple are also players, but I don’t believe they are as developed as Amazon and Google are in the smart speaker and voice assistant space). In an ideal world, voice assistants would provide platform companies with a wealth of consumer data as users query the devices about their everyday needs. Also, voice assistants can be a new conduit to monetization through new applications or — especially in Amazon’s case — to lowering barriers to the purchase of goods. However, most complex tasks, such as ordering a ticket for the movie you’d like to see tonight, finding out when the beach is open, or buying an outfit for an upcoming wedding, are still much easier via a smartphone or laptop interface. The Adobe study found that of the 32% of respondents with a smart speaker, only 35% and 30% used voice interfaces for basic research or shopping, respectively.

Improving the use cases, or “skills,” of voice assistants will be critical for platform vendors to increase the use of these devices for complex tasks and to elevate smart speakers from smart radios and novelties to gleaming data gems. TBR expects this to be the major battleground between voice assistant and smart speaker providers moving forward as the form factor has been relatively proved. TBR believes Google has a slight advantage due to its heritage in data mining behind the façade of services as well as its Android and Chrome cross-platform tie-ins (a lot of relevant user data is already in Google, such as contacts, schedules, and often email). Amazon is no slouch either due to its investment spend, growing media empire and robust e-commerce platform, which Google lacks. Apple could be a dark horse; however, its Siri is still weaker on an artificial intelligence (AI) basis and the HomePod’s pricing makes it an unlikely easy gift.

The next frontier for all of these platform providers is in the commercial space, an area we may see Microsoft put much of its effort into while leaving the consumer space for better-suited peers. In fact, collaboration between Microsoft and Amazon on voice and smart speakers may confirm this. Using voice assistants and smart speakers to query analytics or gain business insights or employing them as a “smart secretary” in conference rooms are areas TBR sees as avenues for commercial expansion. TBR has seen slightly different approaches from Amazon and Google in the commercial space. Amazon, likely with Microsoft support, focuses on the office with Alexa for Business, while Google seems to be positioning its voice AI and smart speaker technology to serve as an interface for a business’s customers.

However, as with the consumer space, the use case must be proved, the skills must be ironed out, and existing commercial infrastructure must be modified to support voice assistants and smart speakers. And despite furious investment in these possibilities by the major platform players, TBR doesn’t expect to see Alexa widely adopted in the boardroom for at least another two to three years. For now, I believe smart speakers will continue to find their way into homes as a novelty or curiosity for tech-excited people and early adopters, contributing to slow but steady growth, or as an easy, cost-effective tech-based gift, driving additional bursts of increased unit sales during the holidays.

*Voice activity data includes devices that are not smart speakers, such as smartphones.

Samsung heads in the right direction

Samsung introduced its new Galaxy Note 9 smartphone and two other products at a big event, Samsung Unpacked 2018, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Aug. 9. The Galaxy Note 9 is a beautiful thing. It is better than last year’s model in many ways, and it has new features, including a remote control built into its integral S-Pen. As with most new models of highly evolved technology products, the enhancements are only exciting if you care about well-conceived and well-executed, though incremental, product improvements. This isn’t Samsung’s fault; it is very hard to pack new and exciting functionality into a highly evolved but constrained form factor.

The newly introduced Galaxy Home Speaker is also impressive; just 160 units of the smart speaker filled a basketball arena with impressive sound, complete with thumping bass. It also has a promising integration of the Spotify music service. Additionally, the new Galaxy Watch looks like a high-end watch, not like Apple Watch’s cough lozenge look, and the rotating bezel is a much more satisfying user interface (UI) than the Apple stem-winder. Bixby, Samsung’s smart assistant, included in the smartphone, watch, and speaker, is much improved over past versions, and it will put you through to Google Assistant on the phone.

Taken individually, these products are superb examples of the best of modern consumer electronics products. Plus, there are synergies among them. The best example shown was continuous music playing from smartphone to speaker and from one speaker to another in different rooms. This cohesiveness, Samsung believes, is the future of consumer electronics — open integration to provide seamless intelligent experiences. We agree. Samsung has identified the direction in which these devices must evolve and makes that direction clear both to the outside world and to the company’s thousands of designers and engineers.

Samsung’s proclamation of this direction was unusually loud, but the company is not alone in pursuing this quest. The company’s vision is not very different from one that Apple first expressed when it introduced the iPod to accompany its line of Macintosh PCs, and that which Apple continues to pursue. Google is moving in this direction with both its hardware products and software platforms. Microsoft retreated from its efforts in this direction with its withdrawal from the smartphone market, but TBR believes the company will, at some point, re-enter that space. Finally, Amazon is a major contender, with its smart speakers, tablets and streaming devices.

There remains much to be done to deliver this effortless, seamless experience. Currently, bringing together different products to provide a seamless experience requires effort on the part of the customer. This is essentially systems integration at home, and in many cases the benefit does not outweigh the cost. To be successful, these systems must interoperate, but at the same time vendors want to demonstrate that they work “better together.” Services and devices from vendors other than Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon must be easily integrated and provide a seamless experience.

The spoken UI is critical to the success of these integrated consumer platforms. Controlling the home environment with a smartphone provides great power and flexibility, but is not worth the hassle; wall switches are a better UI than an app. A smart speaker, however, one that knows your history and preferences, is both powerful and easy to access and use. The problem with spoken UIs is that there are too many of them, and each keeps a separate store of information about the user. Until this problem is solved, Samsung’s goal of a seamless intelligent experience will not be achieved, and while the market for intelligent home devices will continue to grow, it will not grow explosively until all of the integration problems are solved.