Smart speakers: Amazon and Google's gateway into your home


  • Tech News
  • Saturday, 8 Sep 2018

Smart speakers and artificial intelligence remains a key battleground in the tech industry, as new products running Google, Samsung, Amazon and Apple assistants debuted at the recent IFA trade fair in Berlin. — dpa

Smart speakers and artificial intelligence remains a key battleground in the tech industry, as new products running Google, Samsung, Amazon and Apple assistants debuted at the recent IFA trade fair in Berlin. — dpa

When Amazon introduced its Echo speaker with the smart assistant Alexa nearly four years ago, the slender cylinder with a rather dry sound was still laughed at as something exotic. But buyers snapped up the smart speaker in droves, while Google and Apple raced to catch up.

At this year’s IFA trade fair in Berlin, it's clear that no consumer electronics manufacturer can avoid equipping their devices with digital voice assistants. Most of them are dependent on assistants from Amazon and Google – and are thus opening more and more doors into family homes for these online giants.

If there were still a need for proof as to how indispensable Alexa and Google Assistant have become for the tech industry, it’s provided by Bang & Olufsen. The Danish manufacturer of high-end audio products normally produces technology for well-heeled shoppers who care more about sound and design than newfangled gimmicks.

But for the IFA, they displayed two new models – Beosound 1 and 2 – for the steep prices of roughly US$1,500 (RM6,218) and US$2,000 (RM8,291) with a built-in Google Assistant. The search engine giant is equally as keen as Amazon to establish its voice-assistant software on the market not only in its own loudspeakers, but also in the technology of as many manufacturers as possible.

That strategy also meets the needs of electronics manufacturers, as hardly any company has the necessary resources and competencies to build its own digital assistant from the ground up. The fact that even a corporation like Apple is facing difficulties with its Siri software despite its nearly infinite cash reserves demonstrates the scale of the challenge.

Although Siri appeared in iPhones for the first time in 2011, the German version at least is showing weaknesses against Alexa and Google’s Assistant. In the battle for the living room, Apple has remained true to its principle of only allowing its software to run on its own devices – meaning the Apple HomePod is the only smart speaker with Siri on board.

Roughly 16.8 million smart speakers were sold during the second quarter of 2018 according to estimates by the technology market analyst firm Canalys. That’s nearly three times as many as the previous year – but even so, the market is still limited in size.

Google Assistant is ahead of the pack as a result of many cooperations: Nearly every third smart speaker relies on software from the Internet giant, according to Canalys estimates. Alexa has a hold on roughly one-quarter of the market according to Canalys. Only one year ago, Amazon still dominated with a market share of over 80%.

Still, it’s not yet clear how eager consumers actually are to order their stereo systems around by voice commands. It seems at least for the provider of connected loudspeakers Sonos that customers are listening to more music since the integration of Alexa.

Data protection concerns also play a role again and again in the public’s perception of this technology. A sensational incident in the United States in May showed that these reservations are not unfounded in spite of all the precautionary measures taken by manufacturers.

Here, a series of verbal misunderstandings lead Alexa to record a conversation between an unsuspecting couple and send it to one of their contacts. As Amazon explained at the time, the software in the Echo smart speaker first erroneously singled out the name “Alexa” in the conversation – and then misheard the instruction to send a message. – dpa