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Spotify has unveiled its first consumer* hardware: a voice-controlled speaker for cars that will stream music and podcasts. However, ‘Car Thing’ isn’t a commercial product… yet. Instead, the speaker is being used for a test in the US with “a small group of invited Spotify Premium users” according to the company.

Those people will install Car Thing in their vehicles, with the data on how they use it being sent back to Spotify, to further its understanding of what drivers listen to, which in turn will filter in to any future products and features.

“While we know there has been some speculation about our future plans, Car Thing was developed to help us learn more about how people listen to music and podcasts,” is how Spotify is putting it in a blog post, published this afternoon. “Our focus remains on becoming the world’s number one audio platform – not on creating hardware.”

There’s a clear logic in Spotify building its own hardware, even just for research purposes. The company’s current strategy is one of ‘platform ubiquity’ – making its service available on as many different devices as possible, from smartphones to smart speakers.

In the latter case, Spotify can be set as the default music-streaming service on Amazon Echos and Google Home speakers, and played through Apple’s HomePod via that company’s AirPlay feature. However, the data that Spotify gets back on how people are using these devices is limited.

If, as many of us suspect, Spotify ultimately *will* have to create its own hardware for commercial rollout, it needs a reliable supply of first-hand data on how people interact with these devices now. Hence Car Thing… and it seems there will be more devices to follow.

“We might do similar voice-specific tests in the future, so don’t be surprised if you hear about ‘Voice Thing’ and ‘Home Thing’,” explains Spotify’s blog post, before re-stressing the fact that Car Thing is very much a test product.

“We don’t have any current plans to make this specific device available to consumers, but the learnings from our test will dictate how we develop experiences everywhere you listen.”

Chatter around Spotify making its own hardware first started in April 2017, when a job listing on the company’s website described “an initiative to deliver hardware directly from Spotify to existing and new customers; a category defining product akin to Pebble Watch, Amazon Echo, and Snap Spectacles”, adding that “your work will affect the way the world experiences music & talk content”.

Then, in February 2018, another recruitment ad revealed that “Spotify is on it’s way creating it’s first physical products and set-up an operational organisation for manufacturing, supply chain, sales & marketing” – that was the ad’s typos, not ours. The following month, reports emerged of Spotify testing its own voice-control features within the company’s smartphone app.

In April 2018, the rumours reached fever-pitch, with reports that Spotify had developed a voice-controlled in-car speaker, which would be offered to customers as part of a (more expensive) $12.99-a-month subscription. There were predictions that the device would be officially unveiled at Spotify’s next press launch, on 24 April in New York. It wasn’t.

CEO Daniel Ek was questioned about whether Spotify wanted to build its own devices, in May 2018 at the Code 2018 conference.

“Well, I don’t rule it out. But I think the most important part, it’s not our business. Our business is in creating a service in which we get consumers upon, and we make money either through advertising or subscription,” he said. “If we do things, it is to enable that service. It isn’t to be in the hardware [business] selling these things.”

Since then, Spotify has registered with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get a ‘grantee code’ allowing it to file for approval of its own wireless-networking devices, before a report in January 2019 from the Financial Times claimed that it was “planning to roll out a voice-controlled in-car music player later this year” that would “sync to car stereos via Bluetooth connection, as well as preset buttons that correspond to Spotify playlists”.

Throughout all this, Spotify has continued to sign partnerships with other device makers, including giving away Google Home Mini smart-speakers to its family-plan subscribers, and becoming Samsung’s “go-to” music partner across that company’s devices, including a deal in March 2019 to pre-install its app on Samsung’s new smartphones.

It’s clear that Car Thing ties in to Spotify’s longer-term in-car strategy, though. Ek talked about this in February 2019, in an interview with CNBC.

“We’re doing very, very well in the car. I think last number we gave out is that there is more than 50 million of our users who are using Spotify in the car. So it is definitely a big part of our business,” he said then.

“What we’re seeing is that that number is increasing dramatically as more speakers come into play, as cars are getting more and more connected. So it is really a big part of our story. The other thing that we see is those people are more than twice as engaged as the average user as well. So it is an important part of our overall story.”

Cars remain one of the heartlands of traditional broadcast-radio listening, while in the US satellite-radio provider SiriusXM is pushing into streaming, via its acquisition of Pandora. As Ek’s comments showed, Spotify is already keen to portray itself as a key player in the in-car music space too.

The company’s overall hardware strategy remains getting its service onto as many devices as possible (and complaining to regulators when it feels it’s getting unfairly treated on those devices). But the tests of Car Thing (and Home Thing) will play an important role in determining how, when or even whether Spotify launches its own hardware in the future.

*We say ‘consumer’ hardware, because as Ek pointed out in his Code 2018 interview, the company has been making hardware for several years now: chipsets to integrate its service into other companies’ devices.

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