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Smart speakers entice with new built-in touch displays

16 February 2018 David Hsieh

Touch screens provide display-enabled features

Smart speakers are an emerging application today, ever since Amazon released its Echo series of products in November 2014. After Amazon, Google announced Google Home in November 2016. Other brands, such as Microsoft (by Harman Kardon), Apple, Samsung, and LG, are also developing their own products.

IHS Markit expects huge growth in 2018 for the smart speaker market, but long-term demand remains uncertain. The key attraction and differentiation is to have a speech-based assistant—not to make a speaker that simply establishes a wireless connection. After all, there are already many similar products, like smartphones and portable media players, that can connect via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or NFC (Near Field Communication).

Powerful companies with assistant products—such as Amazon (Alexa), Google (Assistant), Microsoft (Cortana), and Apple (Siri)—use the smart speaker as a testbed to introduce machine intelligence and assistance based on two-way speech communication with home users. Their goals are the IoT-connected smart home and changing user behavior.

A new feature for smart speakers is the built-in touch display, in addition to the essential features of speakers and microphone. At CES 2018, Google highlighted its Smart Display platform.

Amazon Echo product series

The Amazon Echo smart speaker application introduced by Amazon at the end of 2014 combines speaker and interactive assistant functions. Communication between user and its speech-based assistant, Alexa, is two-way and semantic, compared to Google Now’s ability to accept voice commands alone.

Amazon launched the Echo product series not only to promote its services (amazon.com and Prime) but also to introduce Alexa into the home and daily lives of its users. The Echo products cover many segments and scenarios, with the latest product lineup including the Echo Dot ($49.99), Echo ($99.99), Echo Plus ($149.99), Echo Spot ($129.99), Echo Show ($229.99), and Echo Look ($199.99).

In the Amazon Echo series, only Echo Show and Echo Spot have touch screens. Echo Spot has a 2.5 inch round display that can provide display-enabled features, such as a music menu, video calls, Amazon video clips, weather, clock, and smart home control panel. The compact Echo Spot (104 mm × 97 mm × 91 mm, 419 grams) looks like a smart and stylish desk accessory. The more expensive Echo Show has the same features as Echo Spot, but with a larger 7 inch touch screen and dual 2.0 inch speakers powered by Dolby.

If not for its enhanced microphone array and Alexa, the Echo Show looks like a 7 inch tablet PC equipped with a pair of speakers. Amazon does not want to make this touch-enabled Echo a tablet PC; it specifically hides the web browser from end-user access. Amazon’s strategy is to offer affordable products to make users familiar with the speech-based assistant, so that assistant services become dominant in future IoT-ready home environments and lives.

Google has the same strategy as Amazon—in this case to promote Google Assistant with the Google Home smart speaker. The strategy is the same with the other brands and their corresponding digital assistants, such as Microsoft (Cortana) and Apple (Siri).

Many similar smart speaker products have been announced to date. Some are compatible with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, and some look like speakers with a display and the Android OS system, which also has Google Assistant.

Google Smart Display platform

The Google Smart Display platform was released at CES 2018. It looks like a larger touch-enabled smart speaker, even though Google refers to it as a display. Lenovo products, for their part, have 8 inch and 10 inch options. The Google Home series products do not have touch screens. Meanwhile, Smart Display features Google Assistant, like the Amazon Echo Show having Alexa. Google Assistant, released in May 2016, is a speech-based user interface like Google Now, but it can engage in two-way communication.

Google Assistant was first installed in Google Home (released November 2016) and Google Pixel/Pixel XL (released October 2016), and has been available on third-party Android devices since February 2017. A new and attractive feature, it is also a critical high-level strategy. Google is shifting its popular search engine user interface to use speech-based intelligence to strengthen control over user behavior—which means extending the company’s profitable advertising business with a new user interface.

The Google Smart Display by Lenovo looks like a tablet PC with a 10-watt full-range speaker and Google Assistant; its touch screen is the primary difference from Google Home. It is like the Amazon Echo Show, but equipped with Google apps and services. This Smart Display platform, released at CES 2018, has been delivered to some third-party partners for them to make compatible products, such as Altec Lansing, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Lenovo, LG, and Sony. These products will be shown in Q2 or Q3 later this year.

To this end, the Smart Display is focused on the IoT home appliance space, rather than working as a new tablet PC. The OS platform is Android Things, optimized for IoT applications, which means users cannot install apps, unlike on Android smartphones. Lenovo offers two models: the 8 inch HD 1280 × 800 ($199.99), and the 10 inch FHD 1920 × 1200 ($249.99).

Like Amazon Echo, the Google Home and Smart Display products are Google’s strategy to expand Google Assistant's coverage. Hardware brands are interested in making compatible products to reach new markets. End-users will likely appreciate the touch display for the visual information and feedback being provided.

Overall, Smart Display products must demonstrate long-term usefulness if they are to avoid the fate of digital photo frames, which exploded onto the scene in a flash and then declined just as quickly. In comparison, smart speakers are simply the starting point for Amazon and Google, with both companies expecting assistants to eventually become part of all consumer applications—and not just smart speakers.

IHS Markit tracks the latest technology and market developments on built-in touch displays in our Touch Panel Market Tracker.

David Hsieh is Research & Analysis Director within the IHS Technology Group at IHS Markit

Posted 23 February 2018

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