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Amazon's Echo and other smart speakers do much more than you realize

Daniel Howley

When Amazon first debuted its Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker in 2014, expectations for the device were relatively high.

More than two years later, the Echo’s success has spurred a new war of the tech titans: Companies including Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Microsoft (MSFT), Samsung and a slew of their Chinese counterparts have either released their own smart speakers or will likely release them soon.

But it appears consumers aren’t using their devices to their full potential. Instead of using these smart speakers to do things like start their cars or order movie tickets, consumers are focusing on more basic tasks like playing music and checking the weather.

And while that may not seem like it would be an issue for device makers, if users aren’t taking full advantage of their devices, manufacturers might lose out on some big cash.

What do you do exactly?

See, it turns out, while millions of people have purchased devices like the Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, experts say owners are largely using them as glorified digital DJs and sportscasters rather than the high-tech assistants they’re meant to be.

“Our research indicates that many consumers don’t fully understand or utilize all the advanced features these devices have to offer,” IDC senior research analyst Adam Wright explained.

“Voice-activated assistants have the potential to increase adoption of consumer [internet of things] applications by improving their accessibility and operation,” Wright said. “However, consumers are currently using voice-activated assistants primarily for basic tasks rather than for advanced functionalities like getting suggestions for things they might like or for home control applications. Within these advanced application categories, utilization declines as age increases.”

Bain & Company’s head of global digital practice, Elizabeth Spaulding, agrees with that sentiment, saying companies need to make it easier for consumers to use high-level skills on their home devices.

According to a survey by Bain & Company, more than 40% of consumers expected themselves to use their smart speakers and assistants to schedule calendar events and make online purchases. But in reality less than 15% were using them for such activities.

Why would manufacturers care?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: your smart speaker isn’t designed to act as a mere speaker. In reality, it’s a portal designed to get you to use more of the manufacturer’s services. The Echo, for example, was developed to get you to purchase more items through Amazon.

In fact, the company is doubling down on that goal by giving Amazon Prime subscribers with Echos early access to deals during the retailer’s upcoming Prime Day events.

Amazon and Google would definitely like to have consumers make greater use of their home IoT devices via the [interactive assistant] devices since they can capture more data, which in turn drives richer contextual experiences for the user and ultimately can become another line of differentiation between the leaders,” Wright said.

Apple’s HomePod is also meant to get you to sign up for services like the tech giant’s Apple Music. Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant can be used on multiple devices like Apple’s iPhone and the upcoming Harman Kardon Invoke speaker. But in the end, the goal is to gather user data and sell more Microsoft services.

In the short term, having consumers purchase smart speakers for tasks like playing music, getting traffic updates, checking sports scores and the like might not be catastrophic for devices makers. But without more contextual content, they won’t be able to gather the kind of data they can genuinely use.

“Indeed, these IA (intelligent assistant) vendors are not looking to make money on the devices themselves, but rather through the services which can be delivered through them,” Wright said.

Getting consumers more engaged

So how do companies get users to, well, use their products the way they’re meant to be? Well, Amazon has taken one important step by adding a screen to its new Echo Show.

“We are visual thinkers in many ways,” Spaulding said, adding that while audio is a good way to input information, we are better able to consumer information both visually and aurally.

Adding more features that genuinely make users’ lives easier could also engage consumers more.

“As the smart home ecosystem becomes more complex with multiple devices connected to the internet, these (intelligent assistant)-embedded devices have the potential for much more advanced applications to deliver a richer smart home experience,” Wright said.

The good news is that the smart speaker and smart-home devices are still in their earliest stages. So while consumers might not be taking full advantage of these devices yet, they very well could in the future.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.