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Artificial Intelligence, Smart Speakers and You

By Jeff Kagan
Sep 21, 2017 5:00 AM PT
amazon-echo

The artificial intelligence speaker war is now being waged, and it is escalating. Today you can choose between Amazon Echo and Google Home. Harman Kardon's Invoke is coming this fall. By the end of the year, Apple's HomePod will be competing in the market, and Samsung has indicated it will join the fray as well. With all these choices, how can you determine which smart speaker is right for you?

Amazon's Echo and Google's Home are the first generation of products in this new smart speaker and AI marketplace. They both do a good job at understanding the spoken word, searching the Web and your stored information, and providing what you are looking for -- some of the time.

Early Entrants

These first-generation products struggle to understand what you are saying or asking and don't always deliver what you are looking for. The quality of the speakers is fine for the spoken word, but they leave lot to be desired if you are listening to music.

For audio quality, the Apple HomePod should have a competitive advantage when it arrives at the end of the year. Its speaker is much higher quality, making the music you play sound much better. We'll have to wait a while longer before we know what else it can do better than the competition.

That better speaker alone will send Amazon and Google back to the drawing board to come up with better audio quality to stay competitive. Thank goodness for the competitive marketplace.

Harman Kardon also has a reputation for high-end audio. We have no idea of the audio quality or other cutting-edge advancements Samsung's product might offer. At this point, all we know is that the company aims to be a player in this space.

Next Generation

The reasons for choosing any of these devices actually are quite personal. They are not identical competitors, even though they all use AI and are considered smart speakers.

It's like comparing cars. Why do you drive the car you do? Personal preference. You actually might like another brand or car better, but you don't realize it because you haven't tried it yet.

Customers who choose an Amazon Echo or Google Home typically do so because they like one brand better than the other. Many users really don't understand the differences between similar products. Choosing will only get more complicated when Apple, Samsung and others enter this space.

Which digital attendant do you prefer -- Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri or Samsung's Bixby? Do you choose based on the device hardware or the AI software? (Harmon Kardon's Invoke speaker is powered by Cortana.)

Many people use Apple's iPhone, but though it comes with Siri, they prefer using Google's Assistant. There likely will be some mixing of services and devices with smart speakers as well.

Loss of Privacy

No matter which AI smart speaker you choose, you may want to be careful what you say when it's in listening mode. Everything it hears, it likely will save on corporate servers, and that data might be accessible to unknown parties for unanticipated reasons at some future point.

This is an issue for those in their upper 20s and older, but not as much for the younger crowd. Today's youth are growing up in a world without privacy, so it's not as much an issue for them. It's the older crowd who understands the loss of privacy and has the biggest problem with it. It's a very real downside to the AI growth wave.

As we get more comfortable being surrounded by listening devices, we will stop thinking about watching what we say. Loss of privacy is an unfortunate side effect of AI.


Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent analyst, consultant and speaker. Email Jeff.


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