‘Okay Google. Play, Aerosmith.’
‘Sure, here’s The Smiths on Spotify.’
Since the start of the year, our home has contained two Google Nest Mini devices. They came free with two Fitbits I bought and my wife was adamant that we wouldn’t use them in the home.
But, we have. We have one upstairs and one downstairs. Their function? To play the radio through Global Player or music through our Spotify account – usually with about 95 per cent accuracy of what I’m asking (it’s okay, I like both Aerosmith and The Smiths).
Easy peasy: The Google Nest Mini is basic, easy to set-up and essentially an inexpensive way to decide whether a smart speaker is for you
We never ask it the weather. What’s the point? I can look outside.
We never ask it for the football scores. Well, I don’t want to know how my own beleaguered Southend United are doing anyway.
And I don’t ask it any general knowledge.
Nope, it is a glorified music player, activated by voice. Nothing more, nothing less.
We have a smart thermostat – which, by the way, is fantastic, way more beneficial than a smart meter – but we never ask the Nest Mini to turn the temperature up or hot water on.
Interest in smart devices, including smart speakers, has exploded in the last year – thanks, probably, in part to things like Google dishing the RRP £49 devices out for free with other buys.
Why would it do this? Well, the cynic in me would say because the search engine giant will expect at least £49 worth of data on you as time goes on.
I’m not alone, with a recent survey suggesting people fear for their privacy with the devices. But is that really case?
Consumer Trends takes a look at smart speakers, how they have now become a common feature in many people’s homes and where we’re heading next.
Aerosmith or The Smiths: I just bark an artist, radio station or song request, and the Google Nest does the rest
Streaming music boom
Over the years, the music industry is one that has had to adapt vastly to technology. I’m in my early 30s, but I still remember recording parts of the Top 40 off the radio onto tape cassette for my Walkman.
I can also remember being at school and my friend bringing in a Apple iPod, with the first touch wheel and the ability to hold thousands of songs, and being completely blown away.
My dad played records on vinyl, I grew up largely with CDs, played both on stereo and CD Walkman, and thumbed through albums in HMV and a wonderful shop called Golden Discs just off Southend High Street.
I can remember another friend investing heavily in minidiscs – they’re the future, he said. They weren’t.
We had Napster and the internet, ripping music off via old school connections, before Spotify came in to do it in a legal way, along with Apple iTunes and Amazon Music, to really dominate it all.
I have been a Spotify user since it launched just after I finished university. In one way it has been brilliant, in others, it hasn’t.
For instance, if you told me when I was clumsily pressing record and stop on the Top 40 in my younger years that I could have any song I want to listen to while anywhere on the go through a device in my pocket at my fingertips for less than the price of an album per month, I would never have believed you.
It’s a treasure trove of modern music that I can listen to instantly and also discover old artists that I never got round to buying CDs of.
But sometimes the choice is overwhelming and I’m not sure new albums will ever be listened to, from start to finish, in the same way ever again. It’s all about curating playlists, chopping the filler out, and skipping songs on shuffle.
By 2024, market data firm Futuresource predicts the number of music subscriptions worldwide will top 600million – this will account for 90 per cent of all spend on recorded music. Staggering.
Smart speaker ownership booms
Streaming services have gone hand-in-hand in recent years with smart speakers.
Amazon and its Echo device has Amazon Music, Apple its HomePod and Apple Music and Google Nest Mini has Google Music – unless you default to something else, like me and Spotify.
This is Money assistant editor and consumer journalist, Lee Boyce, writes his Consumer Trends column every Saturday.
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Apple does have music heritage of sorts, but Amazon and Google don’t. They are a global retailer and a search engine.
According to an annual smart home study by market research firm GfK, 29 per cent of people in Britain now own a smart speaker, making it the second most popular ‘smart’ device after the smart TV (which half of people have).
The growth has been substantial. Last year, ownership was 22 per cent, in 2018 14 per cent and just three years ago, 7 per cent.
Further data from Forrester Research, another market research company, the number of households with smart speakers in the European Union, including Britain, almost doubled last year from 10million in 2018 to 19.6million.
It forecasts this to nearly triple in five years to reach 57.5million by 2024. It says that Amazon and Google have dominated the market, and account for nearly nine in 10 sales globally, excluding China.
This will be largely devices made by the companies above, but their are higher end, more expensive examples – with some homeowners even choosing to have these types of devices built into their property.
The GfK study shows an increase in the level of concern about privacy in relation to smart home technology.
This now stands at 53 per cent of those for smart devices in general, up from 49 per cent last year – but increases to 58 per cent for smart entertainment devices.
A large part of this will be people worrying about two things: how their data is being used when they ask the assistant a question and whether private conversations are being recorded in the home.
On the first part, I don’t have much of a problem with this. I only use my speaker for music and I use search engines on my laptop and smartphone without much thought these days. I treat the device the same.
On the second part, I am more concerned. For that reason, I simply switch the microphone off from the bottom when it’s not being used and unplug the machine in the evening. It only takes 5 to 10 seconds to reboot once plugged in. From smart to sleep. I have the power.
Trevor Godman at GfK says: ‘The onus is on the industry to win consumers’ trust in these areas, and also address ease of use and interoperability of connected home devices – the ability of some of those devices to monitor or control others. Addressing these areas will drive wider uptake.’
The past year has seen a number of debates about whether smart speakers are capturing household conversations and how tech providers use ‘manual’ quality checking to improve voice recognition – these are arguments likely to go on for the foreseeable, and for many, they simply won’t want the tech.
Other smart devices on the march?
Despite a boom in smart speaker ownership, the picture isn’t as rosy with other devices, such as home security and energy management, with these areas remaining flat or even dropping slightly.
These are smart lights, thermostats and doorbell cameras. I’m not surprised on the first one, a light switch is pretty simple already without the need for going smart.
On thermostats, as mentioned, we have one and I think it’s excellent. It is much easier to control the temperature with it and I can do with the app on my smartphone.
And on smart doorbells, which I have no interest in, I would expect that sales of these have been huge, given that a walk around my area now sees at least one home in five with a Ring doorbell.
Trevor says ‘People’s stated interest in buying connected devices for security and energy management is actually strong.
‘The problem is that 58 per cent of people hesitate about the higher cost of smart devices over conventional devices – they need to be convinced of the value that ‘smart’ benefits bring.’
This could be why Google keeps dishing out these devices for nothing – including with Spotify recently, in which the streaming service was swamped with requests, and a This is Money story we wrote covering it went viral, with tens of thousands of people arriving, via the search engine, to read it.
The GfK report concludes that cost, privacy, and awareness are the key concerns brands should focus on alleviating.
Could I live without my Google Nest Mini? Certainly. Would I pay for one? Probably not. But since working from home, listening to music and radio in the background more, it’s certainly handy to bark orders from the other side of the room and fills a lonely void without colleagues.
The sound quality is distinctly average but perfectly fine.
It just depends if I’m in the mood for Walk This Way or Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, and whether Google can understand my Essex twang.