Analysis

Google Home Mini and Max fire up the smart-speakers market


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Google held a high-profile press launch last night, with its new Pixel 2 smartphones taking top billing.

Yet we’re more interested in the evolution of the company’s smart-speaker strategy, with two new models – the Google Home Mini and Google Home Max – taking aim at Amazon’s dominance of the market with its Echo models.

Meanwhile, Sonos finally unveiled its own smart speaker yesterday, adding spice to the category ahead of Apple’s HomePod launch in December.

Google Home Mini is an important device to watch. The company hopes that people will scatter the $49 devices around their homes: bedrooms and even nurseries as well as the traditional living-room and kitchen placement for these kinds of speakers.

While distribution is going to be key – Amazon’s trump card is its ability to put the Echos in front of a mainstream audience – at this price the Home Mini could open up smart speakers (and the music-streaming services that come with them) to an even wider audience.

The $399 Google Home Max is a higher-end device that will compete directly with Apple’s HomePod as well as Sonos devices, which it closely resembles right down to its utility for tweaking its sound based on its location in a room.

Of note: the device will ship in December (in the US only for now) with a one-year subscription to YouTube Red: one of the most aggressive streaming/hardware bundles we’ve seen so far.

Google’s ambitions in this space were also signified yesterday through a deal with the New York Times to bundle a Google Home speaker in with the newspaper’s ‘All Access’ digital subscription.

Amazon, Google and Apple’s smart speakers are providing an existential challenge to Sonos, although its scramble to compete has at least now led to some product.

Yesterday, it unveiled an updated $199 speaker, the Sonos One, which will work with Amazon’s Alexa assistant out of the box, with Google Assistant (and perhaps Siri?) to follow in 2018.

Owners of existing Sonos kit can also now control it via Alexa if they have an Echo or an Echo Dot – a feature that Sonos first showed off earlier this year. Welcome developments, but the competitive landscape looks distinctly hairy for Sonos.

Why is Music Ally so big on coverage of these devices? Smart speakers are at the sharp end of developments in how people discover and listen to music using voice controls: something that Amazon’s launch this week of a chart showing the most-requested lyrics through Alexa illustrated.

This technology and these interactions are moving into smartphones, computers and cars at a rapid pace, with Amazon, Google, Apple and surely soon Facebook eager to surround us with their devices and their (in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s words last night) “thoughtfully contextual” AI-powered assistants.

This is the environment within which music will be finding its way to people’s ears in the future. And not just for affluent western consumers. In fact, another announcement that slipped out yesterday: Amazon is launching its Echo speakers as well as Alexa in India, with its music-streaming service to follow.

It’s still early days for Amazon as a business in that market, let alone the smart-speakers category. But if we’re thinking about what it means for people to be accessing music with their voices, India, China, Latin America and Africa are going to be as fascinating as the west, if not more so.

Figuring out what all this means and how music rightsholders can adapt is one of the key challenges for our industry – and a big opportunity if it get its right.

Stuart Dredge

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