Two of the sharpest writers that I follow, Bret Kinsella and Nick Hunn, each published an article yesterday pertaining to the recent flurry of news surrounding the hearables market (Link to Nick’s; Link to Bret’s (you’ll need to subscribe)). As a refresher, Amazon introduced Echo Buds last week at its hardware event, Microsoft revealed Surface Buds and Voicebot reported that we should see an update to Pixel Buds in the middle of October. (Add in Samsung’s Galaxy Buds and it’s as if the same person is naming all these devices and has a deep affinity for the word “buds.”)
In addition, rumors are circulating about a forthcoming update to AirPods that will include a new form factor and new features, one of which is said to be active noise cancellation. So, in one month, we’ve had some serious movement from nearly all the major voice assistant providers as they begin jockeying to poach “ear-share” from Apple, which Apple will undoubtedly not take lightly. Bret’s Voice Insider title for this week’s edition was accurate – “The Ear Wars Heat Up.”
The gist of Nick’s take on Echo Buds was that while he believes the product to be successful, Echo Buds will ultimately represent incremental sales, and not really compete with AirPods. Bret’s analysis was similar, where he pondered, “Who can become the AirPods of the Android ecosystem? AirPods have no significant play or claim to differentiation in that segment. It’s open season. ”
I think they’re both right. The Apple ecosystem has proven to be incredibly hard to poach from once the consumer has decided that they’re an Apple user. On the flip side, in a world full of viable alternatives to AirPods, the 85% of mobile users operating on Android might find one of the various “Buds” to be a more compelling option, especially considering that the glorious user experience associated with AirPods isn’t as pronounced when used with an Android smartphone. AirPods are designed to be used with an iPhone all the way down to the way the computer chips in AirPods and the iPhone communicate with one another.
So, to Bret’s point, who’s going to be the “AirPods” of the Android ecosystem? Amazon has its giant e-commerce arm and intense focus on Alexa working in its favor. Amazon however, is severely handicapped without a smartphone, which it might be able to be circumvent with a well-designed Echo Buds’ on-boarding process and user experience that’s comparable to AirPods. The active noise cancellation, $129 price point, pass-through audio feature, immersive sound, and Alexa ecosystem make Echo Buds a viable option.
Google has arguably the most superior voice assistant with Google Assistant, that’s increasingly becoming more sophisticated from a native functionality standpoint, allowing for sophisticated features and functionality for Pixel users. However, Pixel devices comprise a tiny fraction of the Android handset market, but is growing fast according to Counterpoint Research. While Google Assistant can be made to be the default assistant on other Android devices, Google can’t bake GA into the phone the same way it can with its own phones.
Samsung on the other hand controls the lion’s share of the Android handset market, and has managed to capture 10% of the hearables market in a short amount of time with the Galaxy Buds, but many of those might be attributed to the giveaways with the release of the S10. Bixby remains a question mark, but it’s being led by the founding team of Siri, Adam Cheyer and Dag Kittlaus, so it’s possible that Bixby’s path could ultimately prove successful.
Microsoft’s Surface Buds come with a bit of sticker shock at $249, and with the Cortana’s demotion last year, I’m not really sure that Surface Buds will be able to sell in a meaningful way (although I think some of the niche applications announced are really interesting). Microsoft has definitely exceeded expectations under Satya Nadella, so it could turn out I’m completely off here.
As Bret mentioned at the end of his hearables analysis from this week’s Voice Insider edition, the voice assistant may potentially grow to be the most important aspect to the buying decision for consumers:
“The Ear Wars are a new front in the battle for voice assistant hegemony. Today, earbuds appear to be a peripheral for smartphones, but soon they will be viewed as a peripheral of voice assistants.”
It’s wild to see so much movement occurring around hearables from companies with such deep pockets and serious incentive to win the voice wars that are being waged in multiple arenas now, with one of the largest of which becoming the ear. When I started this blog, I figured that voice assistants and hearables would eventually come together, but I didn’t expect it to happen as suddenly as it is now. Competition breeds innovation and there’s about to be an abundance of competition from the big dogs as they battle for the consumers’ “ear-share.”
-Thanks for Reading-
To listen to the broadcast on your Alexa device, enable the skill here
To add to your flash briefing, click here
To listen on your Google Assistant device, enable the skill here
and then say, “Alexa/Ok Google, launch Future Ear Radio.”