Smart speakers are for music, but that’s not only good news for Apple

You can read a German version of this article here.

The majority of people in the U.S. who own a smart home speaker use the device for a limited number of trivial tasks. That is a result of a recent study conducted by the consulting firm Activate (original presentation, see chart #30). Listening to music, asking general questions or getting the weather, as well as using alarm and timer functionality are dominating use cases. More than three quarters of the respondents own a device belonging to the Amazon Echo product line. Eleven percent use a Google Home.

A few months ago, PwC published the results of a representative survey among owners of Amazon Echo in Germany. Even here, music consumption ranked as the most common use case, with 52 percent saying that they listen to music over the device. 30 percent expressed at least theoretical willingness to use a smart speaker to control other smart home devices.

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These statistics don’t surprise me at all. As someone who owns an Amazon Echo since May this year, I fully recognize myself. While I haven’t done a sophisticated data collection, my rather homogeneous use of the device can be summarized in a few words: “Alexa, open Spotify” is my most common command (“Alexa” is the name of Amazon’s personal assistant installed on the Echo). In addition, I often start my days with asking for the weather, and I frequently utilize the timer function. That’s it. Since I use Alexa in English but my Amazon account is registered in Germany, Amazon blocks the “skills” feature  (skills are the Echo’s equivalent to apps on a smartphone). But according to the report published by Activate, skills aren’t too popular anyway: 65 percent of Echo owners in the U.S. responded that they haven’t even activated the skill functionality.

What does the limited scope of use cases tell us about the relevancy and potential of smart speakers? Is it a bad sign?

In my opinion, not at all. Smart speakers are a new type of product to which consumers have to get used to. It’s natural that people will start with a few tasks which occur regularly and for which the product category offers a compelling, convenient solution. This applies particularly for music. I am not exaggerating when I say that every time when I come home and hand over the music playing on my smartphone to Echo with just three words, I deeply appreciate how incredibly convenient this is. Every single time. This one ability alone already justifies the Echo purchase for me (and the price isn’t too high anyway). Everything else is just added bonus.

For most other tasks as well as for philosophical exchanges about the meaning of life over a glass of wine, Alexa and other personal assistants simply aren’t bright enough (yet). With the new generation of display-equipped smart speakers that are currently hitting the market, a couple of new common use cases will probably emerge; among them presumably shopping, which of course has a high priority for Amazon.

So what about Apple’s upcoming HomePod? The company is positioning it as a high-end device particularly suited for listening to music. On the one hand, this fits well to the emerging evidence of music being the gateway killer app into the smart speaker world. On the other hand, the fact that the existing devices on the market (I have never tried Google Home but I don’t see any reason to assume that it’s worse for music consumption than the Echo) already work pretty well and deliver a reasonably good sound quality, makes it challenging for Apple to employ its usual strategy: Not being the first in a new market, but the best one by a wide margin. Sure, for audiophiles, the case for getting a HomePod might be obvious. But otherwise, what can Apple do so much better so it crushes the competition? In fact, considering that HomePod only will be supporting Apple Music (according to the publicly stated information), it’ll be worse than competing products for the majority of digital music consumers who subscribe to Spotify or other streaming services other than Apple Music.

Maybe I am just lacking imagination about how good the HomePod will be. But that’s naturally hard if one already is highly satisfied with what one has.

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