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Amazon has the lead in the home speaker race — for now

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Apple (AAPL) this week unveiled its first smart speaker, HomePod. The device is aimed squarely at rival Amazon (AMZN), which released its Echo three years ago.

The smart home speaker, as a category, appears to be taking off.

Google jumped in with Google Home, released six months ago. Microsoft (MSFT) is getting in with a Harman Kardon speaker called Invoke, which it announced last month. Each of these devices is also a showcase for each company’s voice assistant technology: HomePod is powered by Siri; Echo runs on Alexa; Google Home is powered by Google Assistant (it’s very Google to avoid a cute human name); Invoke will use Microsoft’s voice tech Cortana.

But for the time being, Amazon is miles ahead in this race—and not just because it was first out of the gate.

“The Amazon Echo portfolio of products is definitely the one to beat right now,” says Adam Wright, research analyst at IDC. “Amazon has leapt ahead of the competition once again with the launch of its latest addition to the portfolio.”

He means the Echo Show, coming on June 29, which looks nothing like the rest of the Echos: it’s a standing rectangle with a video touchscreen. It more closely resembles a portable DVD player, if you remember those relics.

The Echo Show has not gotten a ton of press attention, but insiders are impressed with its 7-inch color screen and its 5-megapixel camera. Adding a visual experience to the speaker, Wright says, “affords Amazon a lead over Google for now.” Inside Higher Ed predicts the Echo Show will “revolutionize higher education.”

Amazon currently controls more than 70% of the voice-enabled speaker business, eMarketer estimates.

L-R: Amazon Echo; Google Home; Apple HomePod. (images via Amazon, AP Photo, Apple)

Google Home does offer an impressive conversational experience. And it could “further this edge,” Wright says, with the expected continued incorporation of Google Assistant with new features (like hands-free phone calls) and with other Google devices, like Lens. But Amazon was first to the space and is iterating so fast with Echo that it’s daunting to compete.

And now there’s Apple. Its speaker comes along three years after Amazon’s, six months after Google’s, and is almost three times as expensive ($349) than either of those ($179 and $109, respectively). As Mizuho Securities wrote in a new research note after Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on Monday, HomePod’s pricing is “at a premium to competing offerings.” That’s an understatement. And HomePod isn’t just competing with those, but also with high-end wireless speakers like Sonos and Jawbone Jambox. “It’s unclear,” Wright says, “whether Apple can compete well in this space.”

Indeed, tech media as well as some analysts have criticized Apple for its late entry, accusing the company, once known for its innovations, as being a copycat now. HomePod even looks a lot like Google Home.

But this race is in its early days. The market for voice-activated home assistant devices is “still in its infancy,” Wright says. Former Apple analyst Gene Munster, now a partner at Loup Ventures, told Fox Business the same on Monday: “They’re about two years late, but… I would also point out that this market hasn’t even started.”

Amazon and Google don’t typically break out sales of their individual devices, but Mizuho estimated that Amazon sold 8.6 million Echos last year, and predicts Echo revenue could balloon to $11 billion by 2020. RBC predicts 60 million units by 2020.

If only 10 million units of smart home speakers have sold, that’s small potatoes. Munster pointed out that it takes 500 million units to really consider a category “mainstream.”

In other words, Apple has ample time.

Daniel Roberts covers tech at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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