Apple's recent confirmation that it will be launching its HomePod - a smart home speaker/assistant to rival the likes of Amazon Echo and Google Home - means that the race to produce the leading device in this space is hotting up. With Samsung, Sonos and others also set to throw their hats into the ring, each brand will be pushing to show that its device is the most advanced, intuitive and wide-ranging in terms of functionality.
Available initially in the US, UK and Australia by the end of 2017, one of the biggest challenges for the HomePod (and its premium price-tag) will be to persuade smartphone-centric consumers that it is an essential rather than a nice-to-have device. Naturally, the most committed Apple fans will always buy any new product in the company's range, but the vast majority of other digital consumers haven't yet been convinced by the merits of smart home speakers. And that's despite Amazon's Echo having been available at a fairly modest price for some time now (including several promotional periods when it has been discounted aggressively).
If we take one of the HomePod's first markets as an example, our research shows that 2 in 3 online adults aged 16-64 in the UK still don't have any of the leading smart home products in their household (defined here as: smart home utility products like connected thermostats and remote-controlled lighting; security products such as smart door locks; smart heath devices like sleep quality monitors; Wifi music speakers such as Sonos; and voice-controlled smart assistants/speakers). For most of these categories, no more than 10% of people say they have them at home, ticking upwards slightly for Wifi music speakers.
Among these current users, there are some predictable demographic trends: 16-24s, men and the upper income groups lead for all of them except smart health devices (where women and 25-34s take the lead). So, to date, the main audience for smart home products has been relatively affluent young men, a group who are often prominent among tech early adopters.
What's arguably more important than current usage figures, however, is that over 1 in 3 UK consumers say they aren't even interested in using any of these products in the future - something which underlines the scale of the value-communication challenge that the brands producing these smart assistants need to overcome. Tellingly, speakers like Echo and HomePod come towards the bottom of the list in the UK for both usage and future interest; lack of awareness in some demographics is probably contributing to this, but so too is the perception in some quarters that smart home speakers don't do any single thing particularly well (unlike most other smart home devices which have a very clear raison d'être). Put another way, smart home speakers might be capable of carrying out lots of functions but they don't excel at any of them.
Even for voice assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa - one area where smart speakers should be able to shine - our latest data shows that they face a huge challenge from smartphones. Currently in the UK (as globally), mobiles are already perceived to be the most important device in people's day-to-day lives. What's more, among the trend-setting youngest generation who should be one of the most receptive groups for smart home products, our data shows that mobiles are capturing more time per day than all other devices put together.
Pretty much all mid- to premium-end mobiles already have integrated voice assistants and, as handset capabilities continue to become more sophisticated with each new generation that is released, smart speakers will need to demonstrate what value they bring that justifies an additional spend. After all, smartphones also benefit from a regular replacement/upgrade cycle (which will be much longer for smart speakers) and are typically carried around with the consumer (unlike smart home speakers, which are typically located in one room).
In a sense, smart home speakers need to overcome some of the same obstacles that derailed smart glasses - a device with a premium price-point that struggled to demonstrate what it did better than a smartphone. Fans of smart speakers might point to their potential as a hub device, connecting and overseeing other smart devices located throughout the home. But these other devices will all be connectable and controllable through smartphone apps - and this is an area where the smartphone will score an automatic victory if the consumer wants to access them while away from the home.
Unless smart speakers start to prove their value and function, they could easily become the next tablet: a device which enjoyed fairly decent uptake but then started to gather dust as they struggled to compete with the endless advances and popularity of the smartphone.