Car, phone, TV: these will win the gadget wars

Rather than representing the dawn of a new product category, Amazon's Echo Show is instead an excellent example of rapid gadget convergence. And that will be the eventual death of it.

The Amazon Echo Show is what happens when a smart speaker and a tablet combine. And that kind of device convergence will be the eventual death of it, Peter Nowak argues. Amazon via Associated Press
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The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking they have seen Amazon’s latest product, the Echo Show, somewhere before.

The device, which can take voice commands and display results on its seven-inch touch screen, does look and act very much like a tablet. Or even a big smartphone, for that matter.

Rather than representing the dawn of a new product category, the Echo Show is instead an excellent example of rapid gadget convergence. It is a reminder that while many of us currently own and use many gizmos, in the near future we will only need a few of them.

The smart money is on those probably being a phone, a television and a car, and not much else.

The Echo Show, which goes on sale in the United States next month for US$230, may initially become a hit because of its novelty, but it is a doomed product in the long run because it does not do much that cannot already be accomplished through other means.

Like Amazon’s existing Echo speakers, which are not officially available in the UAE yet, it is a showcase for the company’s Alexa intelligent voice assistant, which can turn on your lights, order laundry detergent or tell you jokes, among other things.

But, thanks to its screen, the Echo Show can also let you “watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more”, according to Amazon. Its other touted innovation is that it can do video calls. Pardon the sarcasm, but, ooh.

If all of that sounds a lot like any smartphone or tablet armed with a voice AI – whether it’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant – that is because it is exactly like it. Prop your tablet or phone up on a table and, provided it is relatively current, you basically have the Echo Show.

Given that, it is hard to see a future for AI-enhanced speakers – which include the Google Home – even though they are hot right now, or tablets, which were a similar sensation just a few years ago.

The analysis company IHS Markit expects that 60 million smart speakers will ship annually by 2020, up from 6 million last year, but tablets are already falling off a cliff.

A recent report from Deloitte expects global tablet sales will fall by 165 million units this year, or 10 per cent from last year. IDC, meanwhile, says sales have now dropped for 10 straight quarters. Growing smartphone screen sizes and a preference for laptops are the main drivers.

Televisions, meanwhile, are almost like big tablets, but their sales remain robust. IHS Markit expects 259 million to be sold annually by 2020, up from 230 million this year, and it is easy to see why. TVs have always been the household’s main window to the outside world, other than of course a household’s actual windows, and they will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Going forward, internet-connected smart TVs will get even smarter as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and other AIs inevitably migrate into them. When that happens, speaker momentum is sure to grind to a halt.

Speakers may be smaller, inexpensive and more compact, but there is little they can do that a television cannot do better – and the prevalence of TVs is spreading throughout the home. The typical US household now has more than three, an average the UAE is quickly approaching.

Pretty soon, our homes will have smart TVs with voice AI that can answer trivia questions, control other home functions and even – ooh – make video calls. Basically, they will be giant smartphones hanging on the wall. Smartphones, meanwhile, will serve all the same functions outside of the home, as they currently do.

Filling the gap in between: cars. A number of car makers have already announced upcoming integrations with Alexa, Siri and other AI voice assistants, which means cars are quickly on their way to becoming smartphones with wheels. We will be able to verbally control their functions, find navigation directions and, you guessed it, make video calls.

That does not leave a lot of room for other gadgets. Even desktop and laptop computers will find their use cases diminish as voice controls allow us to do more without using a mouse and keyboard.

Smart TVs, phones and cars will soon fill our computing and communication needs through virtually every second of the day, which means we won’t need much else. That is sure to come as a relief for anyone worried about having to keep up with the latest gadgets.

The tech week’s winner and loser:

Winner of the Week: France

The country was well prepared for hackers in the run-up to its election this past weekend, according to several media reports, and was able to prevent the sort of interference that is widely believed to have occurred in the United States last year.

Loser of the Week: Uber

The bad news continues to pile up for the company. Not only has the US department of justice reportedly launched a criminal investigation over the company’s evasion of regulators, it is also now facing a lawsuit in the US for not making its services more available to people with disabilities.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer

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