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Smart Speakers?

Those in the market for a smart speaker don’t have an option but to wait it out

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It may seem like an aeon in consumer tech, but it’s been about six years since I picked up the Bose Soundlink Wireless Bluetooth speaker for casual music consumption around the house. Cut to the present, and with a wireless speaker upgrade on the cards, I figured I may as well consider the slew of AI-powered smart speakers which are all the rage now, thanks in large part to Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo which started it all. My requirements were pretty normal, nothing too fancy. I mean, all I wanted was a speaker that could play back high quality audio, stream from my phone and any major music streaming service, offer intelligent voice control and interactions and not cost a bomb doing all this. I’d even figure out a way to bring one in from the US, if needed, since most of these speakers aren’t available in India. It shouldn’t be so tough, right?

Wrong. Consider the Echo ($179), which includes Amazon’s talented Alexa digital assistant and support for Pandora and Spotify streaming services, but skips Apple Music and Google Play Music, not to mention its sound quality which is rather mediocre and occasionally tinny. Google Home ($129) is cheaper and works great for anyone deeply embedded in the Google ecosystem, but third-party app support pales when compared to Amazon and much like Echo, speaker quality was so-so at best. On the other end of the audio spectrum are Sonos and Apple. Sonos nails the audio quality, but lacks any smart voice controls whatsoever and while it may be by far the best way to get multi-room audio, Sonos systems don’t come cheap, setting you back upwards of $199 even for their entry level offering. There’s Apple’s HomePod ($350), with its promise of high-quality audio with Siri support and caveats we’ve come to expect from Apple — top-tier pricing and streaming support tied only to Apple’s Music streaming service. And then the unknown — Samsung’s reported to be working on a smart speaker powered by its new-and-not-quite-ready Bixby voice assistant, and Alibaba’s shown off a Mandarin-spouting Tmall Genie smart speaker. Neither is anywhere close to being ready.

As it stands, those in the market for a smart speaker, myself included, don’t have an option but to wait it out. You see, unlike the me-too smartwatch and smartphone categories which saw an influx of low-cost Chinese entrants, the limiting factor in this discussion is software.

This isn’t another hardware segment where free, off-the-shelf software can solve the problem across the globe. Even if someone licenses Alexa’s voice service and turns out a cheaper, better sounding, smart speaker, Alexa by itself is severely geographically limited, working only in the US, the UK and Germany. Siri isn’t a licensable platform, which leaves only Google. With its localisation efforts and the significant leverage of its Knowledge Graph, it may end up being a better choice for many developing markets.

The question to ask is — what’s in it for the manufacturer? At least Amazon sees Echo as a gateway to sell more stuff on Amazon, while Google can use targeted advertising to create additional revenue streams from Google Home. There’s little incentive for cheap Chinese vendors to invest big in this niche-by-comparison smart speakers category.

For the moment, my money’s on Google making the product I need, and it can start with a better sounding (if somewhat pricier) Google Home. Sure, the company needs to work on better third-party app support and an inclusive approach to existing smart home platforms, both of which can be delivered as software updates in due course.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tushar Kanwar

The author is Technology Columnist and Program Manager in Bengaluru, India

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