Viewpoint: Smart Screen of Death

Tim Maytom

It’s no surprise that we, as an industry, are fixated on the next big thing. Technology is rooted in the idea of continually pushing forward, and the promise of the Internet was one of a world without limits, where the only real restriction was your imagination. Careers are made and lost on betting which piece of technology will be the next major channel to consumers, the next world-reshaping innovation that changes how we do business.

With that pursuit comes competition, as entrepreneurs and businesses all hope to back the right horse and make the right call. When it comes to emerging technologies, it’s become almost cliché to position firms in related areas as locked in all-or-nothing competitions. Betamax vs VHS. FireWire vs USB. Blu-ray vs HD DVD.

One of the latest battlegrounds appears to be the smart home hub, an area that Amazon has taken an early lead in monopolising with the Echo. The online retailer’s smart speaker is powered by its digital assistant Alexa and it has already teamed up with numerous brands and developers to create a variety of ‘skills’ that provide users with useful day-to-day functions, from news updates to recipes.

The success of the Echo is hardly news, and in fact Amazon has already begun offering the next iteration of the device, the Echo Show, which introduces an integrated screen into the home hub. While the Echo was already spurring competitors to action, the Echo Show has proved even more contentious. Google recently shut down the device’s version of YouTube, supposedly because it doesn’t offer full functionality, which prompted Amazon and Google to engage in a brief war of words. A few days later, reports that Google was accelerating its own efforts in making a smart hub with an integrated screen emerged, suggesting there may have been other motives in the YouTube shutdown.

Google isn’t alone in working on a competing device, with Samsung, Facebook and others reportedly all in various stages of development for similar hardware. But let’s take a step back for a moment and ask: ‘What is this device for?’

You could argue that the use case for the Amazon Echo was always shaky. With the rise of the smartphone, what need is there for a fixed position device? Sure, it integrates a digital assistant, but so does your mobile phone, and with the added benefit of a screen, touch controls and other functionality that the Echo doesn’t offer. The Echo benefits from three factors though; two contemporary trends and one more esoteric x-factor.

Let’s look at the contemporary trends first: the rise of voice search, and the shift from owning digital music to streaming. A fixed position device can incorporate a better microphone and speaker system than a smartphone, and generally has a more controlled environment to listen to, making speech recognition easier and resulting in smoother conversations between users and the device. The rise of streaming music means that a single device can access your entire music library, plus playlists, recommendations and more, without the need for substantial memory and constant updates. The idea of the smart speaker makes sense to consumers – it’s no wonder that Apple have chosen to focus on music with its initial entry into the area, the Apple HomePod.

The other x-factor in the rise of the smart speaker is that we’ve be seeing them in fiction since the 1960s. From Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the computer in Star Trek’s various iterations, the idea of asking a digital assistant to play us a song, answer a simple question or even connect to our smart home to turn down the lights or activate the heating is something we’ve seen represented over and over again. One could even argue it represents the tech industry finally catching up with the kind of space-age visions of the future that we saw in the 1950s, when science and technology were presented as uncomplicated forces of progress and optimism.

To return to our original focus, the Echo Show and its competitors can’t offer the same kind of pedigree of representation, or rather, the promise of the future has already been fulfilled in this regard. A screen in my home that can present information from the internet? That’s my laptop. A fixed device that can gather together all my streaming services? That’s a smart TV. Google’s prospective device will even run on Android. That’s not a smart home hub – that’s a tablet that someone’s propped up in the kitchen.

The tech industry’s push for innovation is one of its greatest strengths, but it is also one of its weaknesses. The relentless pursuit of the new can lead to firms pumping millions into developing devices without clear use cases, just for the prestige of being the first to get there, or out of a need to compete with those who already are. Google is reportedly diverting money away from its smart TV efforts in order to develop its Echo Show rival, but with no clear evidence that there’s an audience for such a device, surely that money can be better spent elsewhere, improving services that we know people rely on?

Mobile and the digital ecosystem are still growing, but the markets are rapidly maturing, and in that environment, it will become less important to be a pioneer, and more crucial to be a reliable name that people can depend on. It’s not as sexy as chasing the Next Big Thing, but it might be more lucrative in the long run.