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When Amazon sold the first Echo smart speaker in late 2014 the press reaction was muted. Reviewers wrote the speakers off as fun but gimmicky. But the product, which was both cheap and a novelty, was a hit.
In spite of justifiable concerns about Big Tech earwigging on conversations, speaker sales continue to grow. New models from Apple, Amazon, Google, Alibaba and Baidu came to the market in 2020, according to Strategy Analytics, lifting global sales to a record. Across the US, 126m smart speakers have been installed, up from 20m in 2017, according to data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP).
That total is edging close to the number of households in the US. But saturation has been prevented by the fact that many buyers opt to plug in more than one speaker. CIRP estimates that more than 20m households in the US have two or more Amazon Echo devices while 8m have multiple Google Home units.
Smart speakers are conduits for voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Baidu’s DuerOS. As natural-language understanding technology has improved, voice assistants have grown more popular. A report by eMarketer estimates that 132m people in the US use them at least once per month.
But just because Alexa can register a song title does not mean comprehension is perfect. Despite predictions, speaking has yet to replace clicking and swiping as the primary way to access the digital world.
This explains why smart speakers and voice assistants have failed to take over the workplace. In 2019, technology research group Gartner estimated that by 2023 a quarter of worker interactions with software would be mediated by voice. This is unlikely to happen. In spite of investment by Amazon in Alexa for Business and Google’s AI chatbot project Dialogflow, lack of finesse limits professional use.
There is a further barrier. Households may not care if Amazon records them arguing over dinner. For companies the stakes are higher. Without agreed standards for privacy, few businesses will embrace voice tech.
The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of the potential for smart speakers in business in the comments section below