I distinctly remember a moment in my expansive two-year career with Technology Integrator and Dealerscope that specifically wondered why a company might create a smart speaker when companies such as Amazon and Google are already building their own. The speaker in question was irrelevant to the story but the broad stroke really didn't have a clear answer to me.
However, the maturity of the market has seemed to begin scratching the surface of where a smart speaker should exist and the purpose it brings to a smart home. And we got a taste of that answer from home control giant Sonos and beloved consumer electronic champion iHome at a CE Week panel billed as "How Smart Speakers are striving to be the next Great Platform."
The panel had vastly different takes on what that question means but the answers both seemed to lead back to one bigger point - smart speakers are more than just a conduit for music. That being said, that is seemingly the easiest way to reprogram the consumer to start using voice as a tool in the home.
"We found that bystanders of music are now the drivers," said Andrew Vloyanetes, the Director of Global Business Development for Sonos. "My kids, who aren't even really great at spelling can put on the soundtrack to Moana. That's the power of voice."
And it's true. Recent information from CIRP suggests that Amazon Echo is used "over 40% as an audio speaker for listening to streaming music." Vloyanetes even pointed out that there is data to suggest that streaming music in a home can lead to more interactive families and a better sense of well being.
But the point of a smart speaker is that it's smart, not that it can play music. Yes, the way it plays music is insanely cleaver, but that is comparing a '95 Civic to a brand new Tesla. The real quality of life change comes from small reprogramming of the consumer to start using their smart assistant in an intuitive way. iHome Director of Business & Product Development Gary Schultz pointed out that their products have been a mainstay in the bedroom ecosystem. But making a product that is the "first thing a consumer interacts with in the morning and the last thing they touch at night" was more complex than simply adding a feature.
"There are little nuances into how a speaker works in a house," Schultz said. "Even just a snooze bar is really complicated because it's not just a mute button. It is independently created and manufactured alongside these companies to work a specific way. That's what makes it so difficult."
The panel then went on to discuss what that change of lifestyle might be and where it could go. Their answers seemed to span a conceivable outcome that was otherwise safely within reason, but if we've learned anything from the speed of technology there is no reason to believe voice assistance can't permeate every habit in our lives.
"The hardest part is customer intentions," Vloyanetes point out. "Yes machine learning is helping but the progression will be offering solutions based on habits. That part is really hard for manufacturers to keep up with. A good home control should notice that you listen to NPR every morning in the bathroom and ask you if you want to automate that."
So if my question held any depth to what was the deal with speaker companies adding smart software, it's because of the insatiable nature of voice assistants. We've seen Google demos - very creepy demos - that prove we don't exactly need human interaction anymore and there is no better vehicle to facilitate that then the smart speaker.