The smart speaker finally gets its killer app for business

It turns out that the most important app for a virtual assistant appliance might be the one you create yourself.

voice assist

The smart speaker space is one of the most innovative and fast-moving in the industry. The sales figures are impressive, but very little of the market’s growth is driven by business users. Businesses haven’t climbed aboard because there’s been no killer app, something that’s so useful that it motivates businesses to buy the hardware that runs it.

I think that’s about to change. A potential killer app has appeared on the scene, something that could have an effect on the smart speaker market similar to what spreadsheets did in igniting the PC revolution of the ’80s.

I’ll tell you about that app later, but first let’s review where this market stands right now.

There has been no dearth of apps, to be sure. Industry leader Amazon boasts 80,000 apps for its four-year-old Alexa platform, driven to a huge extent by its Echo line of smart speakers and extensive developer and third-party hardware programs.

And the market is growing rapidly. Amazon’s Echo line dominates, with more than 40 million users, compared to Google Home’s 16 million users in the U.S. But Home is growing faster. Google Home gained 7.2 million new U.S. users in 2018, 600,000 more than Amazon Echo’s gain.

Smart speakers are poised to go mainstream, with 66.4 million smart speakers sold in the U.S. and 133 million globally in 2018. Some 40% of smart speaker owners say they have more than one smart speaker.

Amazon has less than two-thirds of the market, and that share is dropping, while Google Home is rising. Google Home is approaching one-quarter of the market.

Tellingly, users seem to get more out of Google Homes than they do Amazon Echos. Kantar Worldpanel found that Google Home owners are more active users than people who own Amazon Echos, and they also change their behavior more when they get a Google Home device — for example, they listen to music more than before and use their laptops and PCs less after buying a Google Home device.

Apple’s HomePod smart speaker hovers at around 6% of the market. The company this week reduced the price of HomePod to $299. (That’s unlikely to move the needle because so many other smart speaker products are far less expensive and are being widely discounted. In writing this piece, I found dozens of major cost-reducing sales and specials. Amazon and Google even give away smart speakers free in promotions. For example, U.K. users who signed up for the Spotify family plan recently got a free Google Home Mini device.)

While both Amazon and Google are selling devices, the fastest-growing market is in the world of third-party devices that support either Alexa or the Google Assistant. Component makers are starting to help fuel the trend. Qualcomm last month unveiled its QCS400 chips to power smart speakers. They’re optimized for receiving voice audio, even in a noisy room while sound is playing.

And there’s a lot of innovation in the smart speaker space.

Google WiFi is a home mesh router product. When it was a mere rumor in the tech press, the speculation was that the product would combine Wi-Fi router functionality with virtual assistant features. Now, Netgear’s Orbi Voice is exactly that: a mesh Wi-Fi router that’s also a virtual assistant smart speaker that runs Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.

In fact, Alexa and Google Assistant are showing up everywhere, it seems, including microwave ovens, pet feeders, baby monitors, ceiling fans, motorcycle helmets — even toilets.

Fun. But the truth is that virtual assistants and smart speakers won’t go truly mainstream until they’re ubiquitous in the workplace.

The business of business smart speakers

I told you previously in this space that not only would voice technology reshape business, but that your next business phone would be an Amazon Echo. And I believe those predictions are right on track.

Plantronics last month announced support for Amazon Chime and Alexa for Business in its Trio conference phone line. (Amazon Chime is a cloud service that enables calls both internally to an organization and across the internet.)

Plantronics Voyager 4200 UC headsets also now have Alexa support built in, according to the company.

Plantronics is one of the leading makers of business phone equipment, and it’s going all-in on supporting Alexa. (I believe Google Assistant support is coming soon.)

Third-party hardware support aside, the biggest thing that will drive massive adoption of smart speakers in business — and propel it to mainstream usage like the PC or the smartphone — is a killer app.

And I think we finally have one.

Alexa’s killer app: Business Blueprints

Amazon launched Alexa for Business’s system for creating business skills last week.

The system, called Alexa for Business Blueprints and currently available only in the U.S., enables companies to create custom skills, or apps, without writing code. Instead, Amazon offers a wizard-like process, plus dozens of preconfigured templates, to walk employees through the process of creating a skill. Once the skill is created, the system offers a process for approval. And once the skill is accepted by the IT department or whomever the company designates, the skill can then be rolled out companywide.

(Optionally, skills can be published to the Amazon Skills Store.)

One obvious Blueprint-enabled business skill is a Q&A set. It can be used in, say, a reception area for guests and answer questions such as “What’s the guest password?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” And Amazon already offers many other Blueprint types.

The launch of Business Blueprints was greeted with a yawn by the tech press, which is often too distracted by shiny objects and dazzling presentations to think through the implications of new products and new product categories.

After all, a similar offering called Skills Blueprints has been available for about a year for consumers, and most consumers don’t know or care that it exists.

Business Blueprints is different. Unlike consumers, who are mostly indifferent to the many tools that exist for them to create their own apps, businesses must and will create custom apps.

So a business or enterprise computing platform that enables not just in-house developers, but everyday users to create apps that can be deployed companywide? That’s a revolution.

And it’s the same kind of revolution that spreadsheets launched decades ago in the PC space when ordinary business people could suddenly do what previously only professional accountants or programmers could do — sophisticated business reporting and a thousand other things.

Now something similar is likely with Amazon’s Skills Blueprints.

Those reception apps or skills I used in the example above won’t be created or optimized by in-house developers, but by receptionists. They’ll do it as a way to offload some of their work to the virtual assistant appliance in the lobby.

All departments in the company, from the factory floor to sales and marketing, will be able to create their own powerful virtual assistant skills that will streamline their work.

I predict that these custom but exclusive (to each company) skills will drive big usage because they are inherently self-advertising. Employees will hear them being used. They’ll want to use their own, and will drive initiatives to make it happen for their own purposes and in their own departments. This, in turn, will create additional exposures and drive additional demand.

So here’s my prediction: Two years from now, smart speakers will spread like wildfire within organizations, fueled by the ability of ordinary employees to create their own custom skills.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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