Sometimes leader becomes laggard. Apple innovated to create the world’s first smart voice assistant, Siri, on its iPhones. Asking Siri anything under the sun and listening to her often clever answers became a rage. Microsoft played catchup with its own voice bot — Cortana for Windows devices – as did Google with Voice on Chrome.
Amazon, when it created its own voice assistant, Alexa, did a clever thing. Since it had no operating environment of its own like iOS or Chrome or Windows, it embedded Alexa in a speaker — and made that a voice-activated hub for the home, calling it Echo, a 9-inch cylindrical device. You could speak your music choice– song, artiste, genre — to her and she would play it. If the track you wanted was not in your collection, she could go to the Amazon shopping site, buy it and download it ( paying with your credit card)! She also had at her beck and call, a huge library of 10,000 ‘skills’ that you could reference. Echo also served as the nerve centre of home appliances, showing you who was the door or how your baby was doing via a video camera, controlling your lights or A/C, if those devices were compatible. It also redirected your telephone calls. You could talk to Alexa, from anywhere in the room, because she was backed by 8 microphones and special noise-cancelling technology. Echo has been available in the US and Europe for 2 years now, for $ 180 (Rs 12,000)
Google in turn launched its own speaker, called Home, powered by Google Voice Assistant. It was half as tall and cheaper at $ 129 ( Rs 8400), but did pretty much what Amazon Echo did. It had the advantage of the huge Google search engine to back it.
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Neither Google Home nor Amazon Echo has been formally launched in India — though you can import both at ebay.in for between Rs 17,000 and Rs 20,000. It won’t be very smart, if you do because both devices need an ecosystem of compatible home appliances to be really useful.
Harmon, a lifestyle audio company owned by Samsung, has launched its own voice-activated speaker, Harmon Kardon Invoke, in the US, fueled by Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant.
Finally last week, at its World Wide Developer Conference in San Jose, California, US, Apple unveiled its own smart speaker, Home Pod, controlled by Siri voice assistant.
It will be available by end June in the US for$ 230 (Rs 15000).
From Korea, LG has also entered the smart speaker stakes. At the CES show in Las Vegas, US in January this year, the company previewed the Hub Robot, the first device in this niche that actually looks like a humanoid, complete with 2 blue eyes.
Amazon meanwhile has improved on the Echo. In its latest avatar, named Echo Show, the smart speaker comes with a 7-inch touch screen and camera — which extends its use to make and take video calls. That is a feature likely to be soon clones by others — as video calling are very much a family thing in this age of free Skype calls.
By end 2017, we can expect some of these smart home speakers to be officially launched in India.