The battle of the Smart Speakers

January 03, 2019

It’s little secret the smart speakers are big business, with forecasts indicating adoption has doubled from 50 million to 100 million installed units over the past 12 months.

More importantly, the market is tipped to further enjoy its rapid rise with a Canalys report indicating it will hit 225 million installed units by 2020.

And when it comes to smart speakers, three big names lead the charge…so who’s at the forefront of the smart speaker realm?

Some serious smarts

Just in case you’ve missed all the hype, smart speakers are tiny little voice activated speakers that you position around your home, office or business and they obligingly complete virtual tasks when you ask them to.

These tasks range from switching on and off your smart lighting to reading the news headlines or running through your schedule for the day
Smart speakers are not to be confused with the voice assistants that they utilize. Essentially smart speakers are the hardware and voice assistants are the cloud-based software they run.

And there are three major brands currently leading this field: Amazon with Echo speakers and the Alexa voice assistant, Google with Google Home which uses Google Assistant, and Apple with HomePod which relies on Siri as your ever-accommodating ask-anything aide.

Activating each speaker is as simple as mentioning the assistant’s name. So, in the case of Google Home, you simply say “Hey, Google” and the speaker starts to listen.

A big year for smart speakers

2018 has been a watershed year for smart speakers, with more versions arriving in more places.
Google released a new incarnation of its smart speaker in the form of a visual display, while Amazon Echo and Apple HomeKit finally launched in places like Australia.
So, let’s take a look at the top three…

Is that an Echo I hear?

Amazon Echo

Amazon is the pioneer in the smart speaker field with its perennially popular Echo range, which first launched in 2014. Canalys notes it’s so popular it now likely accounts for 50 per cent of the market share in 2018.

Echo can play music, interact with other Alexa-compatible smart home devices like lighting, and search for things on the internet or perform conversions, equations and make to-do lists. Multiple Echo speakers can also be set up as an intercom system, while voice activated shopping is another service it offers.

How it works

Amazon Echo Dot

Inside each Echo are microphones that activate by saying “Alexa” (users can change that to “Amazon”, “Echo” or “Computer”). This magic word sees everything that follows it beamed up to the Cloud for analysis.

As Wire Cutter explains: “If it’s a question it can answer, such as, “Alexa, what’s the weather in Chicago today?” an answer comes forth from the speaker in a female, slightly computery voice. If it’s music you want, Alexa will search through the Amazon Music catalog or Amazon Prime Music for the artist or genre you requested.

“If it’s a request to turn off a light or adjust the thermostat, your light will turn off and your temperature will adjust—but only if you’ve asked correctly and have properly integrated that ability into the system”.

Amazon Echo is available in a range of sizes including the smaller Echo Dot size, and is also available as 10-inch smart display with screen, known as Echo Show.

Hey Google, how does second place sound?

Google Home

Google Home was the second cab off the rank in the smart speaker race to corner the market. It officially launched in the US in November 2016 and has been playing catchup ever since. In 2018, it’s estimated to hold a 30 per cent market share.

Google did, however make major ground in places like Australia where it beat Amazon to the local market by about six months.

Like Echo, Google Home can search the net, access and play music, control other smart home devices, facilitate voice activated shopping, and even make phone calls on command.

In October, Google launched a new addition to its smart speaker lineup in the form of Google Home Hub. This 7-inch display and smart speaker acts as a digital picture frame and scrolls through galleries of your Google photos when it’s sitting idle.

Are you there Apple HomePod?

Apple Homepod

Trailing far, far behind both Amazon and Google is Apple with HomePod. Estimated to now hold a four per cent market share, HomePod launched in February 2018.
Reviewers consistently note HomePod is more about audio than it is about smart speaker functionality.

It is significantly more expensive than either Google Home or Amazon Echo, and offers a lot less functionality.

HomePod integrates Siri, which can be used to control the speaker and other HomeKit devices, and can be used to conduct text messaging and voice calls from an iPhone.

However, HomePod only supports proprietary Apple platforms and technologies, like iTunes, Apple Music, and AirPlay, meanwhile an iOS 11 device is required for initial setup.

Oh, and some others

While giants Amazon, Google and Apple undoubtedly dominate the smart speaker market, there are other options available. Many of these tap into existing voice assistants like Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby.

So, for example, Lenovo offers a smart speaker/display that can control smart home appliances, let you watch Youtube or read a recipe, and search the internet by voice due to its integration with Google Assistant.

The future

Amazon Echo might be the leader in the pack of smart speakers in 2018, but Canalys predicts Google will level that playing field in the immediate years to come.

As adoption approaches an estimated 360 million units in 2022, they predict Amazon and Google will both hold a 34 per cent share, while Apple will take out 10 per cent and “the others” will command 21 per cent.

Meanwhile, they tip the push will go beyond smart speakers for the home.

“Amazon and Google will now take their devices beyond the smart home and deploy them in a range of scenarios,” they predict.

“Their business development teams are targeting commercial opportunities, such as hotels, offices, gyms and airports, wit initiatives such as Alexa for Business and Alexa for Hospitality.”

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