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Do you have smart speakers in your home? Over 15 percent of U.S adults do. This number may shock you. Perhaps you think it’s too low based on how convenient these speakers are. Some can even control your car! Other people, who worry about their security, are probably aghast by this number. Why would anyone keep something like this in their home, they wonder?
Honestly, smart speakers (mostly offered by Google, Amazon, and Apple) have pros and cons. This SWOT analysis of smart speakers explains the obvious and not so obvious reasons why some people jump on the newest smart speaker, and others stay far away from them.
Strengths: The versatility and ease of use
Smart speakers are voice-control speakers for your home. You say a voice command and your speaker answers you or just does what you ask. The two most common speakers are Alexa, made by Amazon, and Google Home. Other smart speaker brands, like from Apple, are around, but you’re more likely to come across the three made by these giants.
People buy these speakers for a variety of reasons. One of the first is to play music. Just by talking to your speakers, it’ll play certain songs and playlists. You can turn it off, on, adjust the volume, replay, and skip songs all with your voice. So even if you’re in another room, you don’t have to get up to adjust it.
Smart speakers talk back because they have a digital voice assistant within it. Add new dates to your calendar, to-do list, or set reminders and your smart speaker will confirm verbally. If your smartphone is synced, you can even have it send texts or make phone calls. Clearly, smart speakers offer a range of convenience that you wouldn’t expect.
Smart speakers can quickly tell you the weather for today, tomorrow, and next week. You can get a quick readout while you’re getting ready in the morning before heading off to work. No more having to find a weather station you can trust. Same with the news; your smart speaker can quickly give you updates on local and international news. You can tailor sources too from your phone as well.
Google Home, Siri, and Alexa’s voice assistants can also tell you jokes or riddles. If you’re looking for a quick round of trivia, your speaker has you covered, so long as you ask for it. And even if you don’t, some speakers will unexpectedly give you a joke as an answer. Charming, huh?
Weaknesses: Privacy concerns, hacking, and technical difficulties
Many people have privacy concerns about smart speakers because they “listen” for voice commands to activate. According to Amazon and Google, their speakers are only actively listening for the specific verbal command to wake the device. For Google, this is “Okay, Google” and for Alexa it’s just her name, “Alexa”. If the command isn’t said, the speaker shouldn’t be recording, but many people don’t believe that.
Some speakers do come with a microphone off switch. This gives some people peace of mind. But the truth is, people should be more concerned with the fact that these wifi-using smart speakers are hackable.
Speakers use the cloud to find the results for your questions and to recognize your speech. When you first get the speaker, you’re asked to say a few commands for the device to “remember” your voice over others. Once activated, what you say is then sent off to the cloud. If someone wants to hack it, they can. It’s not as difficult as you’d expect.
Hacking a smart speaker has already happened. One person installed malware onto an Amazon Echo speaker. It forced the device to always listen (not just for the voice command prompt), allowing someone to listen to everything happening in the home.
Then there are the frustrations of just using a smart device. Often, the voice assistant will mishear what you say, giving you a result you didn’t ask for. Other times, it won’t hear you at all so it won’t activate. Then the speaker may sometimes respond in a much higher volume than expected, because it stays on the volume you previously set.
Even though you can make it easier for the speaker to remember your voice, any voice can prompt it. Not only can all your friends control if they’re close enough, even actors in commercials can — this has already happened, actually.
Opportunity: More apps and voice-controlled cars
Smart speakers support several different devices and apps, but Alexa has the most availability. Obviously, other brands like Google and Apple need to step up their game, as people want more options when using their speaker. The only way to achieve that is to offer a volume of apps.
You can also use your speaker to watch TV using an add-on like Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV. This is the only way to get the speaker to turn on Netflix or adjust other streaming services, like Youtube. Again, the apps that can do this are limited but that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way.
If you have smart light bulbs, the speakers can turn them off and on for you once hooked up.
And what about cars? Wouldn’t be nice to be able to tell your speaker to start the car when it’s freezing out? Or to unlock your doors while you’re leaving a store with your hands full? It’s possible with certain vehicles and Alexa support.
You can tell it to start your car and open the doors. Right now, this is limited to late-model Nissan’s. But having voice-activated controls is one way for automobile companies, stuck in head-to-head competition with worldwide brands, to stay ahead of the crowd.
Threats: Incriminating voice transcripts
Privacy makes an appearance here. People who wish to keep their lives far away from prying eyes and ears won’t be caught dead with a smart speaker in their home. Even if the speaker has a mute function built-in. This is a crowd that even the big guys like Google and Amazon likely won’t be able to sway.
Nothing is truly keeping these devices secure. If someone does want to hack yours, they likely can. And you wouldn’t know until Google, Amazon, or Apple make an announcement.
There are complications with data protection, legally, here too. There’s a case where a man’s home caught fire. He said it wasn’t his fault. But in the rubble they found the remains of a melted smart speaker. The cops then subpoenaed access to his recorded voice transcripts (accessible on your computer or in the cloud) which showed the fire wasn’t the accident he claimed it to be. This raises questions about liability, data breaches, protection, and where the law stands.