Virtual assistants, with specific focus on connected speakers, are battling each other in a bloodless and virtually intelligent way. Amazon Alexa is the undisputed current leader, subsequently joined by Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Assistant in the smart speaker stakes. Apple is now joining in the fun, with the Siri-powered HomePod arriving later this year. Make the virtual assistant platforms better, and the speaker offerings improve instantly.

Also read: Apple is using artificial intelligence to carve out new features

The HomePod is Apple’s much awaited rival to Amazon’s Alexa (Echo speakers start at $49.99; Amazon.com), Microsoft’s Cortana (Harman Kardon Invoke price is not yet announced) and Google’s Home ($109; store.google.com) smart speakers. We will get the final pricing and availability details at the Apple keynote on 12 September, where the iPhone 8 is expected to be unveiled as well. The extra time that Apple used to potentially perfect the smart speaker could mean that the HomePod might have significant advantages over rivals. The speaker runs the Apple A8 chip, also seen in iPhones, which does mean there is significant power packed under the hood. Apple promises that it’ll be really loud too, the sound will come from a cylindrical-shaped speaker that is just 7 inches tall. There are seven tweeters packed in, with individual audio drivers. There is a 4-inch woofer too. The design, however, allows it to move the sound in all directions, making for a genuine 360-degree sound output experience. It detects the spaces in your home, and directs the sounds in such a way that you hear the best detailing, with the idea being to reduce reflections too.

The Siri integration means the HomePod is completely smart, and will answer queries, navigate, get you the news and weather and even set calendar entries for you, among other things. It will also be able to control Homekit-compatible IoT (internet of things) devices too, no matter where you are in the world. With significant updates arriving for Siri in the days to come, Apple’s smart speaker gamble could perhaps be the best placed among the lot. Apple is betting big on artificial intelligence, and that should provide a strong foundation for the smart features.

Google continued to make the artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant helpfully called, well, Assistant, available to more devices. The software development kit available for more and more devices—the idea is to open it up to a larger world beyond your smartphone and the Home smart speaker which they make, to add more speakers and even devices such as fridges and even vacuum cleaners. LG has confirmed that Assistant will be integrated in upcoming smart home gadgets such as refrigerators and washing machines, to name a few.

At the just concluded IFA 2017 tech show in Berlin, what we got to witness was the latest line-up of smart speakers that will integrate Assistant, including Anker Zolo Mojo, Mobvoi TicHome Mini, Panasonic GA10 and Sony’s LF-S50G, the latter even resembling the design of the Apple HomePod speaker, which Apple gave us a sneak peek at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) earlier this year. As it turns out, this is just the start, and Google suggests more speakers are on the way. Google’s Assistant has been available on Android phones since last year, but the company faces stiff competition from Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana.

The biggest difference between the HomePod, and indeed all Google Assistant-powered speakers, would be the audio hardware. In comparison, the Sony LF-S50G ($199.99) which also claims 360-degree sound, packs in one audio driver and a 2.09-inch woofer. There is nothing which tells us that it will be significantly better than Google Home or any of the plethora of other speakers available.

A few days ago, Apple announced that Eddy Cue, the senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services, will no longer be in charge of Siri. This means that Cue, who has been leading Apple’s online services, including iTunes, Music and iCloud, will now have more time to focus on Apple’s pursuit of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. Craig Federighi, senior vice-president of software engineering, will now lead Siri into what is perhaps the most critical time for the virtual assistant.

Apple suggests that the HomePod smart speaker will start shipping later this year in the US and to certain other countries, with a price tag of $349 (around Rs22,000). A June 2017 survey by digital media and research company Morning Consult suggested that 19% of those who already own an Apple product were interested in buying the HomePod, once it rolls out.

Also read | HomePod: The reason Apple needed a Siri movie featuring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Perhaps, the rivals know the threat better than anyone imagined they would, so soon. Google’s move to open up the software to third-party developers points to two things. First, Google realizes the threat that Apple and indeed Amazon as well as Microsoft pose, and hence wants to get the Assistant on as many speakers (and indeed other gadget options) as quickly as possible. Second, they know that just the Home speaker can’t really compete in this space, and Google knows it isn’t an audio hardware manufacturer—that certain expertise is missing, which could put it at a disadvantage in the very basic music and audio quality feature of the smart speaker.

The connected speaker market share numbers in May, according to research firm eMarketer, were: Amazon’s Echo speakers have captured 70.6% of the US market, while Google Home has 23.8%, and 5.6% is shared between multiple other brands.

And this is an advantage Amazon doesn’t want to lose, at this critical juncture. In a one-of-its-kind move, Amazon and Microsoft have announced that starting later this year, Alexa and Cortana assistants will be able to talk to each other. This means anyone using Alexa (on the phone or the Echo smart speaker) will be able to ask a paired Cortana assistant to schedule an appointment, while Cortana users will be able to call upon Alexa to do their shopping on Amazon’s online shopping platform.

As it turns out, the connected speaker space is really becoming competitive now. While everyone is trying to balance the equations, would it be too surprising if the ultimate decision driver turns out to be the audio quality? It is a smart speaker after all, and no one wants a smart but tinny sounding speaker after spending big bucks.

Close