What’s next, Alexa? Smart speakers hit their limits

Smart speakers were fun and handy when they started, but not everyone bought into them. As improvements to their smarts appear slowed, so too have sales. — dpa

Smart speakers with integrated voice assistants have been in our lives and our homes for the past half decade, helping us to control smart-home devices for lighting and heating, and playing our favourite music on demand.

But is that really all there is to these handy helpers? Or will they offer more features in the future?

As easy as it is to use smart speakers, the technology also quickly reaches its limits in practice.

"Manufacturers have had to recognise that smart speakers are very practical for individual functional areas, but they are not universal assistants," says smart home specialist Rainer Müller.

"Searching the web or maintaining shopping lists is less useful using purely acoustic interaction than one might initially think," he says.

In their defence, smart speakers are relatively new and still evolving, if only slowly. Amazon launched its first one in late 2014 with Google and Apple following soon after.

Besides those three, other companies have struggled to succeed in the smart speaker sector with their own voice assistants. Even tech giants such as Microsoft with its Cortana voice assistant and Samsung with Bixby have failed to make much impact.

Much more helpful and also more popular has been the use of smart speakers to control smart-home devices.

"Controlling networked lamps, blinds, heating thermostats or robot vacuum cleaners on demand is very convenient," Müller says. Voice assistants are also frequently used for music playing.

Overall, voice assistants have clearly arrived in everyday life and been generally accepted, says Timo Brauer of the technology magazine inside digital.

"Initially, smart speakers were a gadget for tech-savvy users. But not least because of affordable prices of €30 or €40, the devices are finding their way into many households,” he says.

A lot of people are still not interested in the technology though. "There is a large group of consumers who are very skeptical about smart speakers, which probably has to do with data protection in particular," according to Müller.

In addition, many consumers do not see any real benefit to them.

There’s also a certain level of distrust, caused by stories that smart speakers can turn on without being activated and then record their owners. Müller believes that such concerns aren’t really justified.

The devices are normally always on and waiting for their activation word. Only then does recording start. "Unintentional activation shouldn't be a big problem in practice," Müller says.

Timo Brauer sees the technology reaching its limits when a smart speaker receives voice commands from multiple users, such as an entire family.

"That doesn't work reliably, and it's then also not possible to access different streaming accounts, for example, so that everyone can play their playlist on demand,” he says.

If you’re worried about your search queries being saved somewhere, all it really requires is a few clicks to delete them, according to the experts.

As well, Amazon and Google offer the option of automatically deleting all voice recordings after a user-defined period of time, Brauer says.

The enthusiasm for smart speakers looks to have cooled somewhat after the initial excitement. Sales seem to have plateaued or may actually be declining.

The reasons for this are complex and, in addition to a general saturation, could also be related to the fragmented nature of the smart-home market, according to Roland Stehle from German consumer electronics association GfU.

For example, there’s still no uniform standard that would allow all smart-home devices regardless of manufacturer to talk to each other.

Barring major developments to their capabilities, the rapid expansion of the smart speaker would appear to have lost its momentum - at least for now. – dpa

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