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Main article: Smart speakers

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The robot homecoming is upon us

17:45 | 14 January

Robots were everywhere at CES, as has been the case for at least a decade. But there’s a different tenor to the robots shown off at the recent annual consumer tech event: they’re designed for home use, and they’re shipping products, not just concepts intended strictly for trade show glam.

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri (despite the backing of global technology giant Bosch) . But other robots, including autonomous vacuums, have already carved out niches for themselves within the domestic milieu. Between slow-burn but now mature categories and the sheer volume of newer products jumping in to establish new beachheads, it now seems certain we’re on a path at the end of which lie hybrid companion and functional robots that will become common household items.

Industrial to residential

One of the biggest signs that home robotics is gaining credibility as a market is the fact that companies which have found success in industrial technology are branching out. At CES, I spoke to Elephant Robotics founder and CEO Joey Song, who was at the show demonstrating MarsCat, a fully developed robotic cat designed to be a companion pet with full autonomous interactivity, similar to Sony’s Aibo.

 


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Luminary launches its subscription-based podcast network on Alexa devices

18:45 | 17 December

Luminary, a startup building a “Netflix for podcasts,” is now trying a new tack to gain subscribers for its premium service. The company is today launching an Alexa skill that will allow podcast listeners to stream content on Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered devices, using voice commands. In addition, Luminary is also becoming the first podcast service to offer premium subscriptions by way of Alexa voice requests.

Listeners will be able to ask Alexa to “start my free Luminary trial” to gain a month of free access to Luminary Premium, or they can say “Alexa, subscribe to Luminary,” to kick off their $7.99 per month subscription in the U.S.

Despite its messy and controversial launch, which saw a number of podcasters pulling their shows from Luminary’s service, the company has persisted. Today, Luminary has grown its library to include over 40 premium podcasts exclusive to its network, including shows from big names like Trevor Noah, Lena Dunham, Martina McBride, Russell Brand, Team Coco, The Ringer, Roxane Gay + Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others.

To date, Luminary’s efforts have focused on being both a podcast network and an app that plays podcasts, including those outside its network. On Luminary’s iOS, Android and web apps, subscribers can listen to the company’s original programming alongside their other favorite shows. But the new Alexa experience focuses only on paying subscribers — to listen on your Alexa smart speaker, you need to either subscribe or start the free trial.

Once enabled, Luminary subscribers can use the Alexa skill to pick up premium shows where they left off on web or mobile and ask for recommendations, in addition to streaming their favorite shows. On Alexa devices with a screen, like Echo Show, the skill also features a visual experience featuring the show’s artwork and descriptions.

The voice app was designed in partnership with New York-based digital agency RAIN, which specializes in voice and conversational A.I., and is Luminary’s first voice platform launch.

The company debuted in early 2019, backed by nearly $100 million in funding, for its subscription-based business. But many podcasters were upset to find their free, ad-supported, and publicly available shows were being gathered up to help attract users to Luminary’s premium service. In addition, Luminary wasn’t sending complete and accurate analytics back to podcast publishers, they found. (Luminary has since corrected this.) As a result, several larger brands requested their shows pulled, including Spotify’s Gimlet and Parcast, NYT’s The Daily, The Joe Rogan Experience, Endeavour Audio, PodcastOne, Barstool Sports, and others.

It’s not surprising that companies Spotify invested in to grow its own exclusive library of shows would bristle at being distributed ad-free through a third-party app. What Luminary didn’t count on, however, would be the range of podcasters who wouldn’t view its app as just another distribution mechanism for their content — like Overcast, Pocket Casts, or Apple or Google’s podcasts apps, for example.

With the Alexa launch, Luminary is focusing more heavily in its premium service, where it pays creators for their work instead of having podcasters rely on ads. The company said it chose to launch on Alexa because smart speakers are the third most-used devices for listening to podcasts, behind mobile devices and PCs.

The launch arrives at a time when Amazon is also investing more in the podcast listening experience on Alexa devices. Last week, Amazon added support for Apple and Spotify podcasts on Echo devices, and now allows users to set either as their default podcast service.

Luminary users won’t have that same built-in advantage, though. To get started, users will instead need to say “Alexa, open Luminary.”

 


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Sonos acquires voice assistant startup Snips, potentially to build out on-device voice control

00:36 | 21 November

Sonos revealed during its quarterly earnings report that it has acquired voice assistant startup Snips in a $37 million cash deal, Variety reported on Wednesday. Snips, which had been developing dedicated smart device assistants that can operate primarily locally, instead of relying on consistently round-tripping voice data to the cloud, could help Sonos set up a voice control option for its customers that has “privacy in mind” and is focused more narrowly on music control than on being a general-purpose smart assistant.

Sonos has worked with both Amazon and Google and their voice assistants, providing support for either on their more recent products, including the Sonos Beam and Sonos One smart speakers. Both of these require an active cloud connection to work, however, and have received scrutiny from consumers and consumer protection groups recently for how they handle the data they collect form users. They’ve introduced additional controls to help users navigate their own data sharing, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence noted that one of the things the company can do in building its own voice features is developing them “with privacy in mind” in an interview with Variety.

Notably, Sonos has introduced a version of its Sonos One that leave out the microphone hardware altogether – the Sonos One SL introduced earlier this fall. The fact that they saw opportunity in a mic-less second version of the Sonos One suggests it’s likely there are a decent number of customers who like the option of a product that’s not round-tripping any information with a remote server. Spence also seemed quick to point out that Sonos wouldn’t seek to compete with its voice assistant partners, however, since anything they build will be focused much more specifically on music.

You can imagine how local machine learning would be able to handle commands like skipping, pausing playback and adjusting volume (and maybe even more advanced feature like playing back a saved playlist), without having to connect to any kind of cloud service. It seems like what Spence envisions is something like that which can provide basic controls, while still allowing the option for a customer to enable one of the more full-featured voice assistants depending on their preference.

Meanwhile, partnerships continue to prove lucrative for Sonos: Its team-up with Ikea resulted in 30,000 speakers sold on launch day, the company also shared alongside its earnings. That’s a lot to move in one day, especially in this category.

 


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Spotify’s free music service will now stream on Alexa devices, plus Bose and Sonos smart speakers

18:05 | 20 November

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes as Spotify says its free tier will now stream across Alexa-powered devices, as well as other smart speakers from Sonos and Bose. The Alexa support will be available for users in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

In the case of Alexa devices, like Amazon Echo speakers or the Fire TV, users will be able to ask Alexa to play Spotify’s playlist, like “Today’s Top Hits,” or their personalized playlist, “Discover Weekly,” among others. The service can also be set as the default, so you can use commands like “Play my Discover Weekly,” “Like this song,” or “Pause,” and more, without having to say “on Spotify.”

Meanwhile, on Sonos and Bose speakers, users can set up Spotify Connect from the Spotify app. This works with Bose smart speakers and soundbars, as well as all Sonos smart speakers, including the new indoor/outdoor speaker Sonos Move and the Symfonisk IKEA WiFi Speaker, integrated with the Sonos Home Sound System.

To use Spotify Connect, you’ll tap the “Devices” icon on the screen to select which speaker you want to use. This will also require the Bose and Sonos devices are updated to the latest firmware, the company says.

The expanded support for smart speakers comes only a day after Amazon directly challenged Spotify with a major move of its own. On Tuesday, Amazon announced its own music service would become free across devices, including the web, Fire TV, iOS, and Android. Before, the free, ad-supported music service was only available on Echo devices. While the services is a rival of sorts to other free services, like Spotify and Pandora, it has a more limited catalog of just 2 million tracks. That makes it better for those who only casually listen to music stations and curated playlists.

Spotify’s stock dropped almost 5% on Tuesday after Amazon’s announcement, however.

By now making Spotify’s free tier more accessible, it’s likely that many people will choose Spotify’s free streaming over Amazon’s free streaming, given the larger catalog of over 50 million songs. In addition, Spotify is best known for its personalization capabilities that help introduce users to new music based on their likes and listening history, which continues to be a major draw.

However, Amazon is only one of many challengers Spotify faces these days, with Apple Music, YouTube Music and regional players in big markets like India and China, also vying for users.

In addition, TikTok owner ByteDance is said to be preparing to move into music streaming, aiming for markets like India, Indonesia, and Brazil. That’s a huge threat not only because of the markets it’s targeting but because you can now draw a direct line between TikTlk top tracks and No. 1 tracks and hits on Spotify, which gives it a competitive advantage.

 

 


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A browser bug was enough to hack an Amazon Echo

20:24 | 9 November

Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.

 


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Google makes moving music and videos between speakers and screens easier

20:04 | 8 October

Google today announced a small but nifty feature for the Google Assistant and its smart home devices that makes it easier for you to take your music and videos with you as you wander about the different rooms in your home.

‘Stream transfer’ as Google prosaically calls it, allows you to simply ask the Assistant to move your music to a different speaker, or — if you have the right speaker group set up — to all speakers and TVs in your home. All you have to say is “Hey Google, move the music to the bedroom speaker,” for example. In addition to your voice, you can also use the Google Home app or the touchscreen on your Google Nest Home Hub.

This will work with any source that can play to your Chromecast-enabled speakers and displays.

It’s all pretty straightforward — to the point where I’m surprised it took so long for Google to enable a feature like this. But maybe it just needed to have enough devices in peoples’ homes to make it worthwhile. “Now that millions of users have multiple TVs, smart speakers and smart displays (some in every room!) we wanted to make it easy for people to control their media as they moved from room to room,” Google itself explains in today’s announcement.

 


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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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Is Amazon’s Alexa ready to leave home and become a wearable voice assistant?

23:52 | 25 September

Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes – but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far – but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?

Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting – and telling – about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.

alexa echo amazon 9250082

The company has tried to get this done in different ways before. Alexa has appeared in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, in some cars (including now GM, as of today) and via Amazon’s own car accessory – and though the timing didn’t line up, it would’ve been a lock for Amazon’s failed Fire Phone.

Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful – in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.

Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from just being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.

Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all – the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.

But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavour to begin with.  While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.

The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives – and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.

alexa echo amazon 9250074

A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users vs. a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption – especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.

The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can interate the assistant’s feature set quick enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).

Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just bonus for a large percent of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest its planned for that as well.

In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.

 


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Amazon wants to put microphones into your rings and glasses

21:45 | 25 September

At the end of its hardware event today, Amazon announced a new program for testing and selling its own experimental, limited-volume hardware: Day 1 Editions.

The first of these new products is Echo Frames. These are Alexa-enabled glasses, though unlike Google Glass, there’s no camera and no display, just microphones and a speaker.

The second is the Echo Loop, a rather large Alexa-enabled ring with two built-in microphones and, of course, a tiny speaker. Both of these will be available on an invite-only basis and in limited volumes later this year.

The frames will retail for $179.99 and the Loop will be $99.99.

download 2

The glasses, which will sell without any prescription lenses (though you can add those if you want), weigh in at 31 grams. They aren’t especially stylish, though they look pretty acceptable.

The ring is maybe the oddest product Amazon demoed at its event today. It’s pretty large and I can’t quite see people talking into their rings and then listening to what Alexa has to say in response, but I could be wrong. Maybe it’s the next big thing.

“Paired with your phone, this ring lets you access information throughout the day,” Amazon writes. “It’s super easy to connect with Alexa without breaking stride or digging out your phone, for those simple things like turning on the lights or calculating the tip on your lunch bill. Simply press a button, talk softly to Alexa, and then the answer comes discretely through a small speaker built into the ring.”

To be fair, though, these are very much experimental products that are meant to allow Amazon to get feedback from real customers. But that’s what Amazon said about its Alexa-enabled microwave, too, and now it’s the best-selling fridge on the site.

Image from iOS 5 1

 


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Sonos took the mic out of its smart speaker for the $179 Sonos One SL

16:00 | 5 September

Sonos has a new entry-level connected speaker that will give you all of its multi-room, high-quality sound – without the onboard microphones and smart assistants of the Sonos One. The microphone-free Sonos One SL retails for $179.99 ($20 less than the existing Sonos One) and comes with AirPlay 2, delivering good functional upgrades over the Play:1 it replaces.

Visually, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the Sonos One from the Sonos One SL, especially at a distance. It has the exact same dimensions, and the same industrial design, featuring a matte black or white finish and controls on the top. Those controls are the one place you’ll notice an obvious difference, however – the Sonos One has an additional LED, microphone icon and capacitive touch surface above the playback controls for turning on and off the built-in smart assistant and microphone. The Sonos One SL, lacking a mic, has none of these.

Unlike the Play:1, Sonos One SL can stereo pair with a Sonos One, which is a nice feature because when using two of these in tandem in one room you actually only need one to have one with a mic for use with Alexa or Google Assistant. Two Sonos One SL speakers will also pair with one another, of course, and with combined savings of $40 vs. the Sonos One, these are naturally great candidates for use with the Sonos Beam for a home theater surround setup.

[gallery ids="1877509,1877510"]

Of course, you can also still use the Sonos One SL in combination with a smart assistant – just like you can with any other Sonos speaker, so you can specify to play music to them via voice control using any other Alexa or Google Assistant enabled device.

The $179 Sonos One SL is now the least expensive offering in Sonos’ own lineup – but the $149 Sonos x Ikea bookshelf speaker is the lowest-price Sonos-compatible offering overall. They’re a lot closer than you might think in terms of quality and other factors that would contribute to a buying decision, but the Sonos One probably has a slight edge in sound, where the Ikea bookshelf speaker is a bit more versatile in terms of mounting and installation options.

Sonos One SL is up for pre-order now, and will be shipping as of September 12.

 


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