Why I can’t dismiss smart speakers as just a mirage

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

Neil Cybart writing at Above Avalon:

Wearables contain a much more attractive long-term value proposition than stationary smart speakers that have to be connected to a wall outlet. In addition, the presence of a screen provides even more value as it has become very clear that voice-first or voice-only interfaces just aren't that efficient.

I’m conflicted by this assertion from Cybart. On the one hand, he’s right that the capabilities of a digital assistant with a voice-only interface are far more restricted than that same voice assistant paired with a screen. Even a small screen like on the Apple Watch gives Siri the ability to not only tell me the weather when I ask it, but also present a forecast for the rest of the day on my wrist. We’re visual animals, and it’s almost always faster and more intuitive to see something on screen than to hear it spoken to us.

However, his conclusion that these interfaces don’t have a place in most people’s lives is something I greatly disagree with, and frankly sounds like the sort of argument I was making before I actually got an Echo to use in my home. After about a year using an Amazon Echo (and about 6 months using a pair of Google Homes) I can safely say that I rarely use Siri on my Apple Watch when I’m at home.

I wrote this in my initial review of the Echo Dot last December, and it still holds true today:

My Apple Watch is always with me, but I have to raise it and start talking. It’s a tiny motion and wonderfully convenient, but being able to trigger Alexa without any physical action is maybe 2% easier. 2% isn’t a lot, but as humans we like to remove as much friction as possible. Because of this, there are things that I would normally ask Siri to help with on my Apple Watch that I now just ask Alexa to handle.

Yes, I use the Apple Watch for Siri all the time when I’m not at home and these stationary assistants are not around, and I also use Siri or Google Assistant on my watch/iPhone/Pixel when I’m looking for information that is better presented on a screen, but those instances are more rare than I once expected. For the vast majority of my queries, a voice only response is sufficient.

Additionally, the ability for these speakers to be a “public” computer is one of their features, not a hinderance. My Apple Watch is great, but in addition to the 2% friction it takes me to raise my wrist to talk to it, it is completely useless to my wife. The Echo and Google Home make it possible for both of us to talk to the same device with equal ease and get information. The Google Home even knows both of our voices and will provide unique responses based on which one of us is talking to it. Maybe Apple will make the Apple Watch an always listening device and will allow it to detect multiple voices…but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If voice interfaces evolve to the point of becoming more useful, wearables will be able to easily support an increased reliance on digital voice assistants. The current fascination with standalone smart speakers may end up being labeled as a steeping stone to mass-market wearables adoption.

This is Neil’s conclusion, and I’m again skeptical at this take. There are advantages to a computer that is not strapped to your body (wearables) that he is not considering at all. The multi-user functionality, frictionless question asking, and quite simply the ability to not have to wear a computer if that’s not your thing are all advantages that these stationary smart speakers have over a wearable. Based on Google Trends, the Apple Watch has far more interest in the market than smart speakers and I personally love my Apple Watch to the point where I carry my iPhone with me all day despite using a Pixel phone at the moment, but I think dismissing the smart speaker market as a stopgap before we all just wear smart watches and rings and necklaces or whatever is not going these speakers enough credit.