Gone are the days when you could buy a speaker, and play music was all it could do. Like televisions and vacuum cleaners and refrigerators before it, speakers are getting smarter — and two of Silicon Valley's biggest tech companies are racing to be the ones providing the brains.
With a slew of new devices on the way over the next few months featuring voice-activated assistants from Amazon and Google, that race is picking up speed.
Amazon kicked things off last Wednesday, unveiling several new speakers powered by its assistant Alexa (though it's worth noting that none of Amazon's Echo devices are being sold in Canada):
- Second generation versions of its smart speaker Echo, and the smaller Echo Dot.
- An all new Echo Plus that doubles as a hub for controlling your smart home devices (it even comes bundled with a Philips Hue light bulb).
- And the Echo Spot, a small circular device with a screen that Amazon thinks you'll put by your bedside like a clock.
Then, at an event in San Francisco today, Google announced a larger, higher quality version of its Google Home speaker, called the Home Max alongside a smaller, cheaper model called the Home Mini.
The former will debut in the United States in December — the same time as Apple's first standalone smart speaker, Home Pod, with Siri built in — but Canadian availability hasn't been announced.
The latter is available for pre-order Wednesday in Canada for $79, and is Google's answer to Amazon's Echo Dot.
And to round things off, wireless speaker maker Sonos also announced a new model today, the Sonos One, which will launch with Amazon's Alexa assistant built in, and support for Google Assistant next year.
Many assistants, one device
The Sonos One is perhaps the most interesting reveal of them all — not because of the capabilities of the device itself, but because it's a useful signpost for where the industry is likely heading.
So far, Google and Amazon have had the most success selling smart speakers of their own. But the two companies are betting that by making the Alexa and Google Assistant experiences available to third party device makers, they can gain an even greater foothold — not just in people's homes but also cars, appliances and more.
Amazon has been doing this for a few years now, working with third parties to get Alexa inside cars, thermostats and smartphones. Google announced in May that it was releasing similar tools for developers too, and announced the first third party speakers in August.
But soon, the Sonos One will offer both assistants in one device.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hinted at such a future in an interview with the New York Times in August, announcing a partnership between Amazon and Microsoft that would make each company's assistants — Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana — accessible through both companies' devices.
Bezos predicted that this would soon become more commonplace, and that people would eventually turn to different assistants for different tasks, relying on the relative strengths of each, versus a single assistant that does a bunch of tasks so-so.
But the first step is getting speakers and other voice-activated devices into people's homes. Luckily, there'll be a slew of new options to choose from over the next few months.
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