Over the last few years, there’s been quite a bit of attention around voice assistance, smart speakers, or whatever term one prefers for always-on, internet-connected microphones. Whether talking about Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google Home products, around every holiday season there’s a new rush to talk about the adoption of these devices. Ben Thompson at Stratechery captured this in early 2017 in his article titled “Alexa: Amazon’s Operating System
”, where he speculated whether voice
might be tech’s next major frontier after Windows, the iPhone, and Facebook/Google. The observation about Amazon’s potential dominance in this space held up, as the price of Alexa devices fell, sales continued to climb, while Google saw a decline in sales
for their own smart speakers.
Projected sales of smart speakers, in the United States, are predicted to increase but are already seeing signs of stagnating growth, as most people already have a smart speaker: their phones. In 2018, when writing “The Battle for Home
”, Thompson admitted that voice, as it turns out, might not quite be the next great technological shift as the smartphone:
What made the smartphone more important than the PC was the fact they were with you all the time. Sure, we spend a lot of time at home, but we also spend time outside (AR?), entertaining ourselves (TV and VR), or on the go (self-driving cars); the one constant is the smartphone, and we may never see anything the scale of the smartphone wars again.
I can’t say I wasn’t immune to the hype around voice
a couple of years ago. The technocentric mindset of always wanting to see every new piece of technology made obsolete and pivot an entire industry is a part of what’s sustained capital within the tech industry over the last fifteen years. (Also, what sustains the lives of people who professionally write about tech!) If every startup can’t change the world, why invest money or word count? Now, within the context of music, Thompson’s comparison between the smartphone and the speaker is fairly salient. All of the attention around smart speakers and music seemingly ignores the fact the primary mode of music consumption for many people is already a “smart speaker”.
This might give a slight explanation of why ‘voice’ peaked in Google search terms in 2018, but over the last five years there’s been little change to how people interact with music, even on smartphones.