Apple, Amazon and their peers are just desperate to listen to their customers. The market for voice-controlled assistants and smart speakers is getting more competitive as new gadgets are rolled out, and prices are slashed on those already available. Each tech giant is chasing a different kind of promised land. The reality may disappoint.

Voice tech is gaining momentum because of two advances. Many of the chips used to produce smart speakers are repurposed cellphone components. That industry sells about 1.5 billion units every year; parts are plentiful and prices low. And software’s growing ability to process and understand language through artificial intelligence makes smart speakers increasingly powerful. Consumers are happy to control their TV or ask about the weather without whipping out their phones.

Motives among suppliers vary. Amazon hopes to use the convenience of its gadgets and gathered data to sell more goods. Alphabet wants to use its device to remain the leader in search and produce more targeted ads. Apple needs to sell more hardware and lock iPhone users more tightly into its orbit. Since people probably don’t want several speakers in their home, though, that is resulting in a price war. Amazon and Google have cut the price of their cheapest gadgets to $30. It’s implausible they can make any profit at this price, so they are counting on ancillary sales.

The contribution of these devices is still small and murky relative to the gigantic size of these firms, which means they can afford to lose money without shareholders minding. Amazon says it sold “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” over the holidays. Hardware is a rounding error to Google, and Apple’s isn’t yet on the market. New entrants like Roku hope to gain users too.

Like any gold rush, most of the entrants will probably walk away disappointed, and perhaps all will. Clever speakers are useful in some circumstances, but phones can do many things better because they have a screen too. Think of tablets, a market that initially attracted fierce competition, but peaked in 2013 because demand proved limited. Voice-controlled devices may well represent a similar kind of hype, expressed in a different way.

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- U.S. tech company Roku said on Jan. 3 that it will license its software to allow manufacturers to produce smart speakers. It also plans to launch a personal digital assistant for use on any voice-enabled Roku device for streaming content to a TV.

- Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung already have digital assistants. Apple has said HomePod, its smart speaker, will go on sale in early 2018.

- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on


(Editing by John Foley and Martin Langfield)

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