September 27, 2019 By Edward Brown
If there’s one thing technology companies learned during the smartphone boom, it’s that getting people locked in early is the difference between success and failure.
Customers are simply unwilling, at least in any significant number, to leave whatever ecosystem they’ve invested in – whether it’s Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.
And so when there’s a chance to break ground on a new ecosystem, a fresh opportunity to get people locked in for years to come, you can expect a scramble.
For “voice”, widely considered the next big platform in tech, the scramble is on, and it’s being seen most aggressively in one distinct area: your face.
It’s an area with limited real estate – you are likely to have just two ears, and two eyes – and a fraught history of botched attempts at game-changing tech.
“To date, the most commonly accepted place to wear technology has been the wrist and Apple’s success with its Watch reflects this,” said Ben Wood, from CCS Insight.
“But as Amazon and a number of other players start to get more serious about ear buds and smart glasses, there is growing evidence that the ‘battle for the face’ has begun.”
Let’s begin with the ears.
Apple has established an early lead here, built on past glory: the iPhone. Its AirPods, released in 2016, currently dominate the category with a 53% share of the 27 million “hearables” sold globally from April-June this year, according to data gathered by Counterpoint Research.
“Apple will keep leading the market for the time being thanks to its loyal base of hardware users and its sticky ecosystem of devices and software,” said Counterpoint Research senior analyst Liz Lee.
“It will also release new ear buds with a major overhaul to the design expected in late 2020 and refresh the market again. We expect that Apple’s share will be around 40%-50% this year and a bit lower next year, but still, it will be the biggest player.”
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While AirPods appear to be simply a wireless version of the headphones Apple has sold for a decade now, the firm considers them to be something far more strategic: its best opportunity to get consumers interacting with devices using voice.
They do little to address Apple’s main problem right now, which is that once people get home, they’re more likely – if they have a smart speaker – to talk to an assistant from Amazon or Google than they are to Siri.
Amazon’s problem is the other way round. The success of its Alexa assistant has it leading the smart-speaker market in our homes, according to Canalys research, but the firm’s disastrous attempt to break into smartphones means Alexa has mostly been stuck indoors.
On Wednesday, Amazon took significant steps it hopes will change that with the announcement of Echo Buds, wireless ear buds with Alexa built in – the most straightforward way yet to take Alexa out of the home. The device is cheaper than AirPods – $129 v $199 – and has the added selling point of including noise cancellation, something AirPods lack.
“It is apparent that access to Alexa could be more appealing for some people than access to Siri, as Alexa can be used to order goods from Amazon directly and Amazon’s ecosystem is more open than Apple’s,” said Ms Lee.
“Amazon could also take aggressive markdowns including offering its new gadget in Prime deals and bundles for cheap during the Black Friday sales to increase market share.”