On October 4th, Google reintroduced Google Home, its answer to Amazon’s Echo after announcing it at I/O in May. In it they listed the top four intended uses for Home: listening to music, getting answers from Google, managing tasks and controlling IoT devices. Putting music first is pretty significant, and I assume that Google believes that that will be one of Home’s main usages. This theory can also be supported by the emphasis they put on the speaker build during the presentation.
Google talked about more than just sound quality. They also touted how its search capabilities would be used to play a song without knowing the song’s title, and how users could link four non-Google music streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn Radio and iHeart Radio) to their Home device (not sure how and if they would all work together.) Google, while it doesn’t quite have the product admiration Spotify has, has had a music streaming product since 2011 and also bought Songza, one of my favorite music streaming apps that was one of the first to tie music playlists to activities. Today Google Home has the ability to play “music from popular music services by artist, song, genre, album, playlist, mood or activity” and deems music as one of Home’s most important capabilities.
So it makes sense that Amazon, creator of the smart home assistant category, would start making music a priority on Echo. Before this week, Amazon offered Echo users all the four non-Google services that Home supports, along with Amazon Prime Music (on demand streaming) and Amazon Music (purchased songs.) Prime Music was only available to Prime members ($99 per year) and offered a limited catalog: 2 million songs, compared to the ~30 million that Apple, Spotify and Google offer. Unlimited offers the same 30 million song catalog and supposedly works well with Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, and claims to be able to find songs, learn personal preferences, and create playlists.
It’s interesting to note that Amazon Unlimited costs $4 per month. Compared to all the other services that cost $10 per month, it seems like a bargain, yet it is limited to one Echo and only that Echo, no other device. This means you cannot listen to Unlimited on your phone, laptop or in your car, which the more expensive services offer.
Predictably, the big three, Apple, Google and Amazon, have all chosen to build services that are available exclusively on their devices. To listen to your Apple Music subscription on your Echo means connecting via Bluetooth and using the Echo as a speaker. I’m not sure, since I don’t have an Echo, how smoothly this works. It certainly isn’t as smooth as just asking Alexa to play a song from Unlimited.
What’s disappointing with the recent flurry of releases is the direction the big three are taking to lock users into their hardware. These wonderful, intelligent music products can automatically create playlists based on current demands, historical preferences, and what similar users have listened to. With a large library of songs at their disposal, ever-improving machine learning capabilities and speech comprehension, listening to music can be a delight. Additionally, these services improve over time based on user preferences with personalization of playlists and prefered artists. Yet by not supporting the other services on their hardware, Amazon, Google, and Apple are limiting users to buying only Echo, Home, and whatever-Siri-will-power respectively.
What this means for consumers that, for example, they may need to compromise on sound quality (“the Echo’s sound quality is uneven at times, with weak bass at high volumes”) to continue listening to their playlists and accumulated preferences. It also means that Spotify might start becoming the service of choice for more listeners as it is currently supported by both Echo and Home, as well as across all phones and devices. It could also mean that users start subscribing to multiple services, whether that’s e result of wanting to have the best performance on their chosen hardware or just for accessing exclusive music releases.
Finally, it also serves to underscore just how much listening to music has changed in the last decade: from owning the media and having the ability to play it on any hardware that could support the format, be it CD, vinyl or tape, or MP3, to on-demand music, vaguely defined by listeners current moods and activities but influenced by their previous choices and accessed by voice, but only on selected devices.