A Few Strong Smart Speaker Opinions

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

One: Amazon got this whole “voice in a can” revolution going, and they deserve tons of credit for figuring that out. When the original Echo was announced, we all thought it was going to flop. Instead, it has heralded a wave of innovation (and $$$) in this new category. This extends to making “flash briefing” style podcasts more popular, as people are now into daily podcasts in a way they never were before the Echo hit the scene.

Two: Amazon’s hardware chops aren’t enough to keep up with the other players entering this market. In terms of looks and build quality, Amazon’s devices are worse than what Apple and Google are making. From the Dot to the Show, the Echo lineup sounds and looks worse than the products Google and Apple are making right now. Look at the new Lenovo Smart Display and tell me that isn’t worlds better than the Echo Show.

Three: As the innovator in the market, Amazon was able to get by on mediocre design, but as more players enter the playing field, they are losing ground. This will hurt them in selling to average folks.

Four: Nobody wants to install Skills. First, the vast majority of Skills on the Echo platform are straight up garbage. Even browsing the main Skills page with featured content reveals little in the way of exciting things to do. So finding good content is hard, and even when you do get a skill that you want, it is not a good user experience needing to “install” it to your Alexa manually. Compared to Google Home, where everything the service does is built in, with only smart home platforms really needing to be linked to your Google account. Meanwhile, Siri requires you to have apps installed on your iPhone to use their abilities, but you probably already have those apps, so it feels like zero work.

Five: I don’t think the Echo has any real differentiating features. Google does a much better job at answering trivia style questions, while its conversation, multi-part request handling, better voice detection, and it’s direct integration to all of Google’s own properties (things you’re much more likely to be using than Amazon’s stuff) makes everything more useful to more people. Meanwhile, HomePod is better for Apple Music customers and differentiates on sound quality in general. Outside of playing Jeopardy, I can’t think of a single thing I think the Echo is best in class at doing. It beats the HomePod in some things, but I don’t really see how it beats Google at any single category.

I got into the smart speaker game with an Amazon Echo Dot, and I now have that same Dot, as well as 2 HomePods and 3 Google Homes in my house. I’m totally sold on this voice assistant future, but I think Amazon is in danger of losing the market they created. Smart speaker shipments are growing fast, and the industry grew almost 4x from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018. Amazon sold 2x as many devices over that time, but their share of the market was cut in half, mostly eaten up by Google. We should have some more estimates on sales numbers soon, and I would expect that same trend to continue.