Alexa, why should I care about smart speakers?

Alexa, why should I care about smart speakers?

What did you get for Christmas?

Chances are, that if you’re into gadgets, it was an Amazon Echo.

The internet shopping giants are keeping the exact sales figures of their range of digital assistant under close wraps, but the fact that the Alexa app needed to operate them was the most downloaded on Christmas Day and for weeks afterwards on both IoS and Android platforms is a pretty strong signal that Amazon won the seasonal battle to be top dog under the techie Christmas tree. Amazon might be coy about detailing their massive growth, but informed industry experts think there are probably currently about four million of their smart speakers in the UK, and one recent survey suggested penetration will top 40% of all British households as early as this year. With Google, Apple and Samsung also all in the arena, the explosion in voice recognition and the generational disruption it represents for how we interact with technology isn’t science fiction, it’s here and now, and brands are already diving in, admittedly some with better results than others.

Whether it’s cooking tips (and abuse) from Gordon Ramsay as users cut their vegetables in their kitchen, or taking up the slack and reading a bedtime story to kids, the benefits of smart speakers seem endless. The number of new ‘skills’ (or apps) which the Echo devices can offer has risen from a dozen or so when it was first launched to approximately 30,000 now, and growing daily.

Crucially, the fact that it’s not just Amazon but independent companies that can develop new skills for Echo devices makes this pioneer period a real gold rush moment for any firms willing to take up the challenge. Gordon Ramsay aside, other early adopters like JustEat and VirginTrains are already translating the tech into sales. But like every gold rush, there are some who don’t always strike it lucky first time round. National Rail’s Alexa skill, for example, has left some users complaining in frustration that the Echo can’t differentiate between different stations in the same city, or has given out-of-date schedule information.

A quick look at #AlexaFail on Twitter provides enough proof that the tech is (often hilariously) still evolving. But despite the inevitable glitches, the rapid transformation of Amazon Echo and its competitors from parlour room novelties into genuinely life-enhancing helpers is happening, quite literally, as we speak.

Personalisation will be the next big leap forward. Once smart speakers can recognise individual voices it will be able to tailor results to preferences. Likewise, the integration of voice recognition with cars and all manner of smart devices from TVs, home heating and lightbulbs to ovens is already here.  All new BMW’s and Minis will have the technology by the middle of this year.  As an example, when the tired traveller can ask their car for nearby hotel or restaurant recommends and get a response tailored to their history, preferences and budget, and then have it booked for them, then the game will really have shifted another gear.

In the meantime those brands that can answer the questions consumers are asking, and those who learn from the mistakes of others, will be the real winners.

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