Smart speakers: the next generation
MacFormat UK|December 2020
Things have changed in the smart speaker world – and not just on the outside

When you think about, it is quite amazing how quickly smart speakers have become so completely normalised. Speech recognition has been around in some limited form since the 1960s when IBM built the Shoebox, capable of recognising a then-astonishing 16 words and numbers. In the mid-1990s, Dragon Dictate introduced reasonable (though sometimes comically imprecise) speech recognition on the desktop as long as you were willing to invest around twice the price of a computer to pick up V1 of its software. You could argue that it was Apple that brought voice tech to the masses with Siri, though Siri actually started development in 1993; Siri Inc was snaffled up by the Cupertino giant in 2010, and hit the iPhone in 2011.

But to look at any company other than Amazon as the cause of the spectacular growth of smart speakers would be to look in completely the wrong direction. Alexa, first introduced with the Amazon Echo exclusively for Amazon Prime members in 2014, beat Microsoft’s Cortana to the market and came two years before the Google Assistant. That first Echo caught a huge amount of press and public attention: here was something brand new in the tech field. A self-contained AI brain, squashed into a speaker that wasn’t too shabby at pushing out a tune. Amazon expanded its capabilities with Alexa Skills, it released a friendly API with terms of use acceptable enough that all and sundry began build compatible smart devices. It made the voice assistant a thing.

Flat-bottomed spheres

That is not to discount the contribution that Amazon’s competitors made. Were Alexa an island, Amazon might have rested on its laurels. But Alexa showed the world what was possible, it kickstarted the second wave of the smart home, it made those competitors possible. Some fell on their faces – even Microsoft is backing down on Cortana a little, and the Samsung-only Bixby is of questionable usefulness – but we’ve been left with a big three AIs, and a big three speakers: Alexa in Amazon’s Echo line, Google Assistant in the recently rebranded Nest range, and Siri in the HomePod. All three are headed towards the next stage of smart speakers.

Look at the brand new fourth-generation Amazon Echo (glance your eyes sideward to see the £89.99 device), and you will note that Amazon has given the outside of the Echo and Echo Dot a radical redesign. The cylinder and puck shapes of previous generations are out, replaced by flat-bottomed spheres. Both now have speakers which point in a single direction rather than spewing their sound around the room, which the larger of the pair can use to its advantage; it gains the Echo Studio’s ability to calibrate itself to a room, employing its big woofer and twin tweeters for a more complex sound. The £49.99 Echo Dot is stuck with a single small speaker and doesn’t get any sound calibration, but hey, it’s cheap. A redesigned shell and some new audio tricks are interesting, but it’s what’s going on inside the Echo that’s really exciting at this point…

First, Amazon has killed the Echo Plus entirely, and instead stashed its Zigbee smart hub into the mainline Echo, making that feature available on a far cheaper device. It has also integrated support for Amazon’s own Sidewalk smart device networking system, which uses Bluetooth low-energy connections to help smart devices talk. At some point it’ll be able to do things like tracking your pets, and while we don’t expect it to replace existing smart home protocols, it does open up options which might well relate to the inter-company smart home discussions that have been taking place.

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