The Real Smarts About Smart Speakers

Why Alexa, Siri and Google want to be your BFFs

Three smart speakers with outlines of human faces over them

A disembodied voice responding to the commands ordered of it. The stuff of Doctor Who. Or Stanley Kubrick. A theoretical possibility toyed with by weird scientists who grew up watching Weird Science. If such a thing existed, it would likely be after we had become tired of the robots in our lives.

Maybe I just glanced the other way for a minute. And when I looked back, this was reality. Not ‘amazing, wow look at that’ reality. Just a ‘nothing special, everyday’ reality.

A decade has passed since Apple introduced us to the strangely named Siri installed in the iPhone in 2011. We are used to talking to our palms when we want to hear a message being read out, Mum’s number to be dialled, or music from the hit parade to tickle our ears.

With the introduction of smart speakers, the voice assistants were freed from the handsets and given independence to roam our homes. In the UK, up to 1 in 4 of us have a Dot, a Nest or a Pod in our kitchen or sitting room. The precise numbers are difficult to find out due to both the infancy of this market and the secrecy of the companies who are leading it, but they range from the conservative 11% to the bullish 1 in 3.

The majority (somewhere above 65% but below 80%) favour the Amazon Echo, the speaker that introduced the assistant that hadn’t previously lived in a mobile.

The popularity has personified the VAs, who are all known by name. Even if your preference is for an ink pen and a landline, you will know at least two out of Siri, Alexa, and Google (go on then, and Cortana). They are the set-up to sitcom gags. The punchline to chat show anecdotes. The clue to the Midsomer murderer.

Such is their popularity that the latest headline predicts that there will be more voice assistants on the planet than humans by 2024. For that to happen, there would be 8.4 billion devices containing VAs, or double the amount there currently are (as of mid-2021).

For this to be a realistic prediction, there needs to be a demand. This is where things get cloudy. Think for a moment. As well as using them in our phones, some people will already speak to the TV remote to change channels. It doesn’t require a great leap to imagine asking the fridge what there is for dinner.

But, for the standalone smart speaker, what is the benefit? To those making them, or us using them?

The market leaders are spending billions to improve the conversational speech of the assistants. Why put them into a device which has no obvious need or benefit to it?

Let’s take a look.


“Well, it’s a speaker, duh!”

True. It may appear that the clue is in the title.

But it’s hard to find anyone shouting about their sound quality as a reason to buy.. When Amazon opened the market in 2014 with the rather small, plasticky-looking Echo Dot that looked a little like a hockey putt, playing music on it seemed an afterthought.

If you had the first-generation Dot, you would know that it added a slightly echoing (excuse the pun), tinny background to your music. The treble always seemed too high. The bass was non-existent. It was a bit like the sound of your music playing at full volume through your earphones somewhere. Not the best of aural experiences.

There are now better, and more expensive, options available. People more expert than me say these stand their ground in the sound system market. Still, if you want to ‘feel the music’, a smart speaker is unlikely to be your first choice.

Apple went to great lengths to challenge this perception when they launched their ‘not a smart speaker’ HomePod in February 2018. Despite their investment in, and demonstrations of, the technology behind the superb sound quality, nobody bought it. And nobody bought it.

Siri’s presence ensured the HomePod was always seen as just another smart speaker. At £400, it was deemed too expensive for the market it claimed not to be in. For once, Apple got it wrong. Not only are smart speakers not known for their music playing quality, improving the quality didn’t motivate purchase.

The original HomePod was discontinued only three years later.


The skills for Skills.

With Amazon’s Echo the only smart speaker on the market for over two years, many of us have assumed that it was, or at least would become, just another way to buy stuff. Shopping by voice is neither appealing nor easy. At launch, it also wasn’t something that Amazon was especially promoting.

Instead, Amazon had a confusing melee of what they called ‘Skills’, all providing third-party services. Skills were like the beta versions of phone apps. The attempts that were created and then discarded during the development phase.

To interact with a Skill using Alexa, you needed to use the specific wake phrase. There was no wiggle room in this. If you wanted to check what was on TV, for example, you would need to say something like “Alexa, ask TV Today Guide what’s on ITV London tonight”.

Using the more natural “Alexa, what’s on TV” would get you nothing but frustration that Alexa didn’t understand.

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A smarter way to shop.

You can now use Alexa to shop if you’re already an Amazon customer. It would seem to fit with Amazon’s proposition of offering a convenient shopping experience. Theoretically at least. Practically, the experience is anything but convenient.

The problem is that shopping, for most of us, is a visual thing. Direct voice-to-sale has no visual element. It only works for repeat purchases. It sort of works for grudge buys, like bin bags and bleach. In both these areas, the items aren't impeded by the lack of visuality or choice offered.

That’s a limited field. It’s difficult to imagine the business case that makes a return on the investment in smart speakers viable. Amazon already offers discounts on this sort of purchase with their Subscribe & Save service. Their previous attempt to broaden access – the short-lived Dash button – would have cost them much less to produce. It still didn’t achieve a return that made it worthwhile.

It seems beset with problems when a selling infrastructure is already in place, as with Amazon. It is difficult to see how those who aren’t already set up to sell can ever get over the obvious barriers.

Google’s attempts to build their own version of Amazon Prime Now has so far been confined to the US. It seems a complicated proposition. Apple is restricted in what it can sell because it doesn't believe in the existence of any retailers other than itself.

Is shopping a red herring?


A less direct benefit.

We may be looking too logically, too literally and too immediately for the value of the VAs in smart speakers.

Much as Apple made the mistake of thinking people would want improved sound from a speaker, shopping on smart speakers may not be the plan either. It certainly doesn’t appear to be a driver for purchase.

Even if many of us think that shopping is at the heart of the strategy, nobody is buying the idea of buying. In the US, the Amazon Echo accounts for 70% of smart speakers sold. Yet only 2% of smart speaker owners use voice shopping regularly.

With numbers that low, it doesn’t appear that we have the desire to shop but are being put off by the experience when we try. It’s more like we just aren’t trying. It’s more like we just don’t want to.

In the meantime, there's no sign of abatement in the investment in voice technology. As this makes interaction with the VAs feel more conversational, they are starting to serve a purpose that involves emotional connections as well as physical interactions. They’re starting to talk to us – and talk with us – instead of just reacting to our questions or orders.

And as such, the way we think of them may be starting to change.

To be continued.

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