clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Smart speakers are everywhere this holiday season, but they’re really a gift for big tech companies

Which voice assistant will get the warmest welcome this year?


Everyone knows that there is, each holiday season, a gift that says, “I know nothing about you, but I love you, I mean, you get it.” For a very long time, this present was an iTunes gift card; Apple is the richest company in the world, and I am pretty sure this is exclusively thanks to the fortune it amassed from iTunes gift cards purchased for nephews and hairdressers in the first decade of the millennium. Prior to iTunes gift cards, the gift was maybe a sweater.

Now, I’m sorry to say, the comparable gift is a smart speaker. We keep purchasing them for each other, buying into the fantasy that Siri or Alexa or Google can make someone’s life easier by scheduling their appointments and managing their time and telling them how to put on makeup or make a butternut squash lasagna. Though, at the moment, reports say that people mostly just use them to listen to music, check the weather, and ask “fun questions.”

As nondescript gifts, smart speakers make a lot of sense: Both Amazon and Google have options that are around $50, there is at least some novelty factor that pokes at adults’ memories of receiving toys, and they are far less rude to give than a Fitbit. Plus, for Amazon and Google in particular, with 64.5 percent and 19.6 percent shares in the category, respectively, the point isn’t really to make money off selling hardware. The point is to beat the others at integrating their services into the lives of the population.

In other words: You’re not gifting an Amazon Echo; you’re gifting a relationship with Alexa. Amazon can later sell that relationship to brands that hope Alexa users will order their products with their voice. You’re not gifting a Google Home; you’re gifting a closer entwining with Google Search and all the strange personalized add-ons to Calendar and Maps.

This expansion of the voice assistant ecosystem is crucial to almost every major tech company, far more so than getting sticker price for devices that look like high-end air fresheners, and if you don’t believe me, please peruse the ridiculously marked-down Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals they offered this year.


According to predictions from the Consumer Technology Association, shoppers are set to spend $96.1 billion on tech presents this year, up 3.4 percent from 2017. In the US, 66 percent of adults will buy some sort of gadget as a gift, and the CTA expects that 22 million of these gifts will be smart speakers. Overall, 12 percent of shoppers plan to buy some kind of voice assistant-enabled smart speaker, and 6 percent plan to buy a speaker that also has a screen — like Amazon’s recently updated Echo Show or Google’s just-released Home Hub.

Smart speakers were wildly popular last holiday season as well, with Google claiming it sold more than one Google Home “every second” between October 19 and January 1 (6.5 million seconds). As noted in a report on the category by Recode’s Rani Molla earlier this month, somewhere between a quarter and a third of Americans already own a smart speaker with a voice assistant, making it one of the most rapidly adopted new technologies in human history.

This year, the CTA says, 36 percent of American shoppers will purchase some kind of smart home device — including smart speakers, but also including all the other things that smart speakers can be set up to control (your lights, oven, refrigerator, security cameras, thermostat, and so on), now that you’ve had a year to get used to talking to Alexa or Google in your bedroom or kitchen at all.

Amazon, no surprise, does well in general during the holiday shopping season, and better every year. In the fourth quarter of 2017, it brought in $60.5 billion, up 38 percent from the same quarter the year before. The company won’t provide hardware sales numbers, but it claims the Fire TV Stick and Echo Dot were the best-selling products of 2017, and that it sold “tens of millions” of Echo devices. In a rare disclosure last year, it also claimed to have sold 1 million smart home devices on Prime Day, which is 36 hours long and therefore significantly shorter than Black Friday, which is now a full week long.

This year, hoping to outdo itself in volume, Amazon offered the third generation of its Echo Dot smart speaker for $24, less than half of the retail price announced just two months ago; a $20 discount on the kids’ version of the Echo Dot, and a $110 discount if you buy three at once; $40 off the Echo Plus, announced two months ago; $40 off the Echo Spot, $100 off two Echo Spots; $50 off the Echo Show, announced two months ago, $120 off two Echo Shows; and so on, forever.

Update: In a press release on Tuesday morning, Amazon referred to Black Friday weekend as “the biggest holiday shopping weekend ever for Echo devices, with millions sold worldwide — [the] all-new Echo Dot was the #1 selling product on Amazon globally, from any manufacturer, in any category.” The company also wrote that it was a “record holiday shopping weekend” for smart home devices, with the top purchases listed as a Ring doorbell, an iRobot Roomba vacuum, and two different smart plugs (one of them from Amazon’s in-house brand).

Google, for its part, does not release hardware sales, but it claims that the Google Assistant is on half a billion devices worldwide, mostly thanks to Android phones. Following its holiday season in 2017, the market analysis firm Canalys estimated that it sold 3.2 million Home and Home Mini devices in the first quarter of 2018 — beating Amazon, which sold an estimated 2.5 million in the same time period.

Canalys’s Ben Stanton told Forbes at the time, “[Google’s] biggest advantage is in the channel. Operators and retailers tend to prioritize Google’s speakers over those from Amazon, as Amazon is in the tricky position of being a direct competitor.” Google’s voice assistant is also reportedly smarter than Alexa or Siri, answering questions correctly more of the time. It has the added benefit of arriving on the market several years after Siri, and avoiding several of Apple’s extremely unnecessary public blunders in the voice space. It’s also avoided some of the trickier privacy questions that have ailed Alexa recently — like, for example, whether the always-on speaker is subject to subpoena.

It’s clear that Google wants you to buy its devices: This holiday season, the company is offering a $50 discount on its $149 Google Home Hub speaker and display combo, which was not even released until late October. Google is also giving away a free Google Home Hub with any purchase of a Pixel 3 phone on Cyber Monday and offering $24 off the Google Home Mini; $50 off the Google Home Max; and $50 off the Google Home Hub at Walmart, Target, and Best Buy. At Walmart, it’s also pairing these markdowns with free chunks of Vudu credit, a “bonus” I look forward to you attempting to explain to your family members.

Even though Google and Amazon are far out ahead of the other major gadget makers, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones throwing their hats in the ring this year: The Apple HomePod is very expensive ($349) except at Best Buy, where it is being offered at a $100 discount. Facebook is currently offering a $50 discount on the $199 Portal, a smart display that launched last month with an always-connected microphone and camera and which you should probably under no circumstances put in your house.

(Chavie Lieber wrote for Vox when the Portal was announced: “[In September], Facebook admitted a security breach had compromised the accounts of 50 million users — one of the largest security breaches ever. Are you interested in gossiping about your sister to your mom under this company’s watch?”)

Of course, take advantage of these deals if you so choose. (I did not link directly to any products, so you will have to find them on your own time.) Just remember, as you do, that much like the $60 smart microwave Amazon unveiled at its never-ending new-Alexa-equipped hardware announcement event this fall, anything you buy is a little bit of a Trojan horse. You are giving your loved ones an entry point into the whole wide world of being listened to and looked at by one of the largest tech companies in the world. I am not trying to scare you; I am just trying to help everyone around you get more interesting presents.

This post was updated to include vague numbers from an Amazon press release about its Black Friday weekend sales.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.