March 24, 2019
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Report: Smart speaker adoption in U.S. reaches 66M units, with Amazon leading

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Smart speakers had a good holiday. Amazon already said its Echo Dot outsold all other items on its site this holiday season, which hinted toward the sizable growth for the voice-powered speaker market. Today, research firm CIRP is reporting the U.S. installed base for speakers grew to 66 million units in December 2018, up from 53 million in the September 2018 quarter and just 37 million in December 2017.

However, holiday sales didn’t have much impact on the market shares for the various speaker brands, the firm found.

Amazon Echo devices still lead the U.S. market with a 70 percent share of the installed base, followed by Google Home at 24 percent, then Apple HomePod at 6 percent, the report said.

“Holiday shoppers helped the smart speaker market take off again,” said Josh Lowitz, Partner and Co-Founder of CIRP, in a statement. “Relative market shares have remained fairly stable, with Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod accounting for consistent shares over the past few quarters. Amazon and Google both have broad model lineups, ranging from basic to high-end, with even more variants from Amazon. Apple, of course, has only its premium-priced HomePod, and likely won’t gain significant share until it offers an entry-level product closer to Echo Dot and Home mini,” Lowitz added.

Also of interest is that some portion of those buying a smart speaker for their home already own one. According to CIRP, 35 percent of smart speaker owners now have multiple devices, as of December 2018. That’s up from 18 percent in December 2017.

This figure is key to the device markers’ larger strategies, because it means that once a company is able to get that first sale, the consumer may return to buy more devices from the same vendor.

Amazon had gained an early advantage here, initially convincing more users to buy another speaker compared with Google Home users. A year ago, almost double the number of Echo users had multiple devices, versus Google Home owners. But Google is catching up, and now about a third of Echo and Google Home users have multiple devices.

It’s worth noting that CIRP data – like much that’s produced by market research firms – isn’t always going to match up exactly with other firms’ estimates and forecasts.

For example, Strategy Analytics this fall said that Amazon’s Echo market share in the U.S. was 63 percent, to Google’s 17 percent and Apple HomePod’s 4 percent. Meanwhile, eMarketer’s 2019 U.S. forecast predicts Amazon Echo will end up with around a 63.3 percent market share this year, versus Google Home’s 31 percent, with all others like HomePod and Sonos, reaching 12 percent.

That said, the broad strokes across all reports point to the same general findings – that Amazon is leading the U.S. market by a wide margin, and while that margin may be shrinking, it’s not going away soon.

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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable “parasite”

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What do you get when you put one Internet connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye”, or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers”. Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write up of the project. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And unlike this creative physical IoT add-on that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

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Google cans the Chromecast Audio

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The Chromecast Audio is no more. Google has decided to stop manufacturing the audio dongle that allowed you to add any ‘dumb’ speaker to your Google Cast setup. If you still want one, you’ll have to hurry — and to entice you to buy a discontinued product, Google is now selling its remaining inventory for $15 instead of $35.

“Our product portfolio continues to evolve, and now we have a variety of products for users to enjoy audio,” Google told us  in a statement. “We have therefore stopped manufacturing our Chromecast Audio products. We will continue to offer assistance for Chromecast Audio devices, so users can continue to enjoy their music, podcasts and more.”

While the Chromecast turned out to be a major hit for Google, the Chromecast Audio was always more of a niche product.

Google is clearly more interested in getting people to buy its Google Home products and Assistant- or Cast-enabled speakers from its partners. It’s also worth noting that all Google Home devices can connect to Bluetooth enabled speakers, though plenty of people surely have a nice speaker setup at home that doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth support. “Bluetooth adapters suck,” Google told us at the time, though at this point, it seems a Bluetooth adapter may just be the way to go.

The Chromecast Audio first launched back in 2015, in conjunction with the second-generation Chromecast. Over the years, the Chromecast Audio received numerous updates that enabled features like multi-room support. Google says it’ll continue to support Chromcast Audio users for the time being, so if you have already invested in this ecosystem, you should be set for a few more years.


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Google woos smart home device makers with launch of Google Assistant Connect

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Google is making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, including those times when devices need to respond to voice commands without the benefit — or the expense — of being connected to Google’s cloud. To do so, Google is today launching into preview a new set of tools called, Google Assistant Connect, before making them broadly available to device makers later this year.

The tools can be used to build devices that leverage an existing connected speaker with Google Assistant to deliver content and respond to commands that require cloud computing resources.

Google Assistant Connect also includes features that will make it simpler for customers to set up their new smart home devices by offering an easier way to pair with Google Assistant.

For some examples of how this could work: a device maker could integrate an e-ink display that shows the weather or your calendar, while the Assistant Connect delivered content provided by the customer’s linked smart speaker to update the display with your current meetings and temperature. That allows the manufacturer’s device to benefit from an existing smart speaker’s capabilities instead of having to integrate that technology itself.

This is similar to how Amazon’s Alexa Connect Kit is used with various smart devices, like the Alexa microwave. 

Google Assistant Connect can also be used in rooms where a Google Assistant smart speaker isn’t available, to allow devices to respond to simple voice commands — like ordering an air conditioner to turn itself on or off, for instance.

The simpler setup feature also rivals Amazon’s newer Wi-Fi Simple Setup for Alexa devices.

Google Assistant Connect will simply set up, as well, by allowing devices to connect to Google Home speakers without the need for a separate bridge or hub. This is an area Google had somewhat ventured into back in October with the launch of Google + C by GE smart LED bulbs, which were made to work with Google devices without a hub. Now this same capability will be a part of this broader toolkit for device makers.

Google says it will have more to share about Assistant Connect later in the year, as it opens up to more manufacturers.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Google Home Hub review

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Shortly after announcing the Home Hub, a Google exec told me the timing was simply about “getting the product right.” Still, it’s curious launching your own entry in the space more than half a year after a trio of hardware partners debuted their own.

It’s easy enough to give the company the benefit of the doubt when you consider all of the variables in a nascent tech category that’s been around since, well, last summer. Amazon won the first to market prize with the Echo Show. It was a big, clunky thing, constructed from budget hardware — but it demonstrated the possibilities of adding a display to smart speaker.

The Echo Show 2 refined the concept, with a more thoughtful design and improved hardware, while a trio of devices from LG, JBL and Lenovo offered a glimpse at what Google Assistant could bring to the table. The Home Hub, announced a few weeks back (alongside a slew of hardware from the company), attempts to deliver that in the hardware sweet spot.

The smart screen sweet spot is, of course, a wholly subjective thing, depending on personal preferences and individual needs. It seems entirely plausible that next year will bring a Home Hub Max, but for now, Google’s settled on a seven-inch display. That puts the product in between the Echo Spot (2.5) and new Show (10-inch). But in spite of sporting the same screen size as the first-gen Show, Google’s managed to keep things compact.

I’ve seen the “ it’s just a tablet” criticism levied against the category by several angry/bored commenters. Google apparently said “screw it” and leaned in. The company insists that all of the tech was built from scratch here, but at first glance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re looking at an OEM-ed Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it, at first. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the Home Hub. I’ve grown to like it, though. From the front, it looks a bit like a tablet floating an inch above the table, mounted at a ~ a 25 to 30 angle. The design implies a future upgrade sporting a swiveling screen with an adjustable viewing angle, but as it stands, It’s small but bright and easily spotted across the room.

The speaker stand is fully covered in in fabric, in keeping with the longstanding aesthetic of the Home line, which has since found its way into the latest generation of Echo devices. Unlike other Home products, the device doesn’t exactly blend in with its surroundings any more than your tablet of smartphone. That said, the wide range of optional screen savers offers a generally more pleasant appearance when not in use, ranging from an AI-curated selection of your Google Photos to fine art to Earth and space shots from NASA. I’m partial to the Earth images myself.

The digital picture frame didn’t die, exactly. It simply disappeared for a bit, only to return as something far more useful.

The bezel is fairly sizable, owning, in part, to the light sensor and far field microphones up top. The display is 1024 x 600, as initially suspected — confirmed, oddly enough, by this tweet. We’re not talking top of the line hardware here, but it’s certainly up to serve as a playback portal for YouTube videos. And honestly, given the size, you’re probably not going to want to watch anything much longer than that.

The absence of a camera is a bit of a curiosity in the broader context of the smart screen category. That goes double after Facebook’s recent introduction of Portal, which basically exists for that reason alone. Here’s the Google’s official line on the decision, courtesy of a blog post from VP, Diya Jolly, “We consciously decided to not include a camera on Google Home Hub, so you feel comfortable placing it in the private spaces of your home, like the bedroom.”

It’s a good line, certainly. And given home many of these things are destined to end up bedside, as a sort of smart alarm clock, coupled with general concern over Google’s core business of collecting data, that will likely give potential buyers some peace of mind. Nipping those privacy concerns from the electric taping webcam contingent in the bud was likely a driver here. The lack of webcam also also no doubt helped keep the price down.

Either way, the inability to video chat may well be a dealbreaker for some, given what a core feature it is on Amazon and Facebook products. If there’s enough of a user outcry for the feature, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company ultimately reverses course. A camera and no camera SKU seems like a pretty solid way to please everyone.

That said, you can still use the built-in mics to call folks on your contact list or “Broadcast” messages to other Home devices on your network, as a kind of makeshift intercom system.

As for the microphone, there’s a physical switch on the rear of the device, which is easily accessed without having to turn the device around. When flipped, Assistant lets you know, “the mic’s off,” along with an icon that flashes on screen. A small red light also appears next to the light sensor up top. I’ve spoken to hardware designers who’ve debated the best way to acknowledge this, given the fact that, on many cameras, the red light signals recording. Practically all have landed in the same camp as Google here, however.

The other physical button is a volume rocker, located on the left rear of the device. You can also tell the Assistant to turn down the volume for you, but the inclusion of buttons is a nice touch for easy access when the display is nearby.

The speaker is actually the cleverest bit of Google’s design here. Compare it to the new Echo Show, whose speaker surface faces the wrong direction, requiring that the product be positioned around six inches from a wall, in order to get the best sound. Or there’s the Lenovo Smart Display, whose front-facing speaker significantly increases its surface area.

With the Home Hub, a majority of the speaker still faces back, but the raised display affords the ability to blast some of that sound forward. As for sound, it’s about what you’d expect on a product in this class. Like the screen itself, it’s perfectly fine for short videos or casual music listening. I wouldn’t, however, rely on it as my primary home speaker. The Home Max, among others, does a much better job.

There’s no auxiliary out port here, either, which is something I like to see on smaller speakers. That said, Google long ago built in the simple, “Hey Google, connect to bluetooth feature,” which searches for and connects to paired devices. It’s something I use regularly to connect my laptop to the Google Max — and a feature Amazon still hasn’t added at last check.

If you’ve got multiple Google speakers set up, the easiest way to switch between them without missing a beat is through the Home app. Otherwise things can get a bit confused. Pairing them into a single group (such as Living Room), meanwhile, will break the speakers up into stereo channels, offering a fuller version of the music, from either side of the room.

It’s a nice effect, especially when paired with the Hub’s display for a visual dimension. There are still some kinks to work out here, however. For example, when I said, “hey Google, volume down,” only one speaker responded. It would be great if the system assured both sides were operating at the same level.

The Home Hub is, of course, voice first. Given its size and shape, however, it ought come as little surprise that there’s plenty you can still accomplish via touch. At any point, for example, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access brightness, volume and settings. Swipe down from the top and you get access to Broadcast and all of the home devices you’ve connected.

This control panel is one the Home Hub’s killer app. Broken down into different categories like lights and cameras (no action), the interface serves as a one stop shop for monitoring and controlling all manner of different settings on connected devices. Google’s embrace of touch controls are really what make this work, with the product serving as a kind of holy grail for home control, similar to what Apple’s been working on with its own Home app.

The device should connect quickly with all Made By or Works With Google devices. It’s a nice list, though the lack of an actual smart home hub is glaring — it’s right there in the name, in fact. The addition of Zigbee functionality was a pretty central upgrade in the last Echo Show. Google, on the other hand, is more focused on building its own ecosystem of products, as evidenced by the recent addition of GE smart bulbs that connect to Home devices via Bluetooth .

It will be a nice system when enough products have jumped on board. For now, however, the company has limited its device ecosystem a bit. That said, Google’s own device ecosystem is pretty robust at this point, between Nest devices and, of course, the Chromecast, which lets you stream video directly to the hub and control content from HBO NOW, CBS All Access, Starz and Viki via voice.

There are two more killer apps that require mention here. The first, YouTube, was already highlighted above. But Google owning the world’s largest video hosting service is pretty huge. There’s a reason it’s been the centerpiece of an on-going tug of war between Amazon and Google — not the mention the fact that Amazon’s reportedly been working on its response to the service.

The Echo’s browser-based workaround just isn’t the same. These things were built for YouTube.

The other is the depth of Assistant’s knowledge base. Google had a tremendous amount of search, context and machine learning here. And as a whole, its offering just feels smarter than Alexa. There are also nice little touches to to the interface that borrow design language from Gmail, Android and other Google properties. For example, when you open your calendar, you get a slew of dialogue boxes:

  • Add an Event to My Calendar
  • What’s My Next Meeting
  • Show My Agenda for Tomorrow
  • Set an Alarm
  • Set a Reminder

Tap one, and you can add listings with your voice. It’s one of the best on-board examples of how the touch and voice functions work in tandem.

The Home Hub, like so many of Google’s hardware devices, is the culmination of years worth of software advantages. Here, they all come together in a nice, compact package, which, at $149 undercuts the competition pretty dramatically.

There are still a number of kinks to work out and some features the company ought to mull over for generation two. But on a whole, it’s a strong first entry for Google in the smart screen space, and one that’s mostly worth the wait.

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