Bugging your own home seems like a bad idea, but leading tech companies see a real future for smart speakers, also known as voice-activated devices.
In development since 2010, Amazon first offered its Echo to Prime members in November 2014. By the time it was available to everyone else the following June, Chinese online retailer JingDong had brought out its equivalent, the gloriously named DingDong. Tech giants Google and Apple, who pioneered voice recognition technology for Google Glass and Siri, are now scrambling to catch up.
Amazon and JingDong’s smart speakers have long-range, always-on microphones to receive voice commands, and can be used to stream music, audiobooks, news and weather reports and answer questions using web searches. They can also control Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as thermostats, lights and air filters in the home. These speakers, along with the forthcoming Google Home announced on May 18 and speculation that Apple plans to integrate smart-speaker tech in its Apple TV, have led enthusiasts to prophesy the end of devices. Why carry a smartphone when you can just speak to the room you’re in?
And yet, the opposite question is just as pertinent. Why buy a smart speaker when you already have a voice command-capable smartphone?
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
For consumers, the question is moot. Maybe they prefer to own one device that goes with them everywhere and only listens when it’s activated, in which case Siri will serve just fine. Or maybe they like the idea that they can set aside their smartphones when they get home and talk to Alexia, the name used to activate the Echo. Either way, voice searches, which already constitute 20 percent of all searches on Android devices, seem set to increase.
For Amazon and JD.com the stakes are much higher. Smart speakers are a way for them to effectively control an entire new operating system. The same way iOS steers us towards the Apple Store and Android leads us to Google Play, these speakers can direct traffic to their behemoth retail businesses, and those of their partners. The Echo (US$179.99) already works with Uber, Domino’s Pizza, Spotify and more. Other brands are no doubt jostling to sign up.
Not that these devices are cynical short-term plays. Both Amazon and JD.com describe their smart speakers as open ecosystems, and they’re welcoming third-party app designers to help grow their platforms. The DingDong (798RMB, or $121) already works with over 1,000 smart devices. It’s currently only available in Chinese but the company is also working on an English-language option.
A spokesperson for JD.com told us, “We anticipate that more and more appliance makers will partner with JD.com, and we will grow our already-huge selection of smart products that can seamlessly integrate through our DingDong Speaker and common app.”
Asked whether they’re anticipating competition from search giant Baidu, they said, “The DingDong speaker draws information like news and music from third parties, including Baidu.”
Amazon and JD.com are willing to concede territory to others because maintaining a small advantage—even if it’s just the data gathered from people’s interactions with their speakers—could be extremely valuable.
If the aural Internet really does take off, and an estimated 3 million Echoes have already been sold, we’ll need to consider not just the look but also the sound of personal, creative and commercial brands. Boll and Branch, one of the few ubiquitous podcast advertisers (along with Squarespace, Audible and Stamps.com), has to spell out its name in every ad to ensure listeners don’t go off and Google “bowl and branch”.
Search-engine optimisation will no longer mean simply a high ranking on Google or Baidu, but also a consistent result for voice searches on those sites, plus the Echo, the DingDong and whatever other platforms emerge. It will require some familiar manoeuvring—content partnerships, paid prioritisation and attempts to game search algorithms—with some strange, new partners.
Sam Gaskin, cultural content editor, Flamingo Shanghai