According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, more and more electronic manufacturers in China, like Alibaba, are getting involved in the AI smart speaker market, fueling its growth and begging the question: are talking speakers just a passing tech fad or are they here to stay?
In the US, tech giants, Amazon and Google, dominate the AI smart speaker space with their Alexa-enabled Echo and Echo Dot; and the Google Assistant-powered Google Home, respectively. As the Wall Street Journal notes: “tech giants [and] consumer electronics makers…all see voice-activated products as the gateway to a future where platforms animated by artificial intelligence will power homes, cars and offices. To some, this first wave in the AI revolution already looks frothy.” And that sentiment is seen played out in Apple’s recently announced Siri-enabled smart speaker, HomePod. A late addition to the fray, the HomePod will be available to consumers by December 2017, and it’s capabilities are an indication that it’s entering a rapidly maturing market.
The HomePod’s positioning is geared more towards smart acoustics than smart AI. Yes, users can control the speaker via Siri voice activation, but the majority of the speaker’s smart functions are audio or music related. One reason for investing heavily in smart acoustics is because, so far, smart speakers don’t sound that great. To differentiate themselves from the pack, Apple is attempting to offer an alternative smart speaker for audiophiles, music enthusiasts and Apple loyalists. Will this positioning work? Perhaps. But the fact remains – the HomePod is merely a lateral move in terms of smart home advancement.
For a new technology, innovation in the smart speaker sphere has been fairly stagnant (for more on this, read my previous blog post “A Clear Path for Voice Control”), and many people who were looking to Apple as a game changer in the field were left mostly underwhelmed by the unveiling of HomePod. Therefore, the direction Apple took with it’s smart speaker only adds to the feeling that the smart speaker bubble is about ready to burst, since we’re still getting variations of “more of the same.”
Amazon, on the other hand, has spent this year rolling out AI smart devices that are not just music speakers, though this fragmentation of the Smart-AI market is already looking too niche for sustained growth. Products such as the Amazon Echo Show (an Echo with video capabilities) and the Amazon Echo Look (an Echo with a camera so you can take pictures of your outfits to log in your “virtual closet” and get fashion advice from “experts”) seem more like placeholder products than fully thought-through use-cases. Amazon knows that the design and UI of the Show are flawed (for example, there’s no way to decline a video call, so friends or relatives with a Show can pop into yours at any moment), and Amazon knows that the Look is about as useful as, what’s it called? Oh yeah, a mirror. But Amazon also knows that AI technology is in a moment of stasis, and between now and the next major smart home breakthrough, they are doing everything they can to keep the ball rolling (and capture an exuberant amount of data about its customers).
So, are AI smart speakers just a fad? Is the bubble about to burst? Perhaps the answer to that is a soft “no.” As smart speakers stand today, the use cases for it are fairly narrow, but that doesn’t mean more smart home innovation won’t branch out from it, as many see the smart speaker as playing a pivotal role in the future smart home. There’s a lot that can be done with an AI smart speaker in the future, but the technology needs to catch up to the possibilities.