Voice Rivalry Heats Up Smart Speaker Game

Pandora is the latest music-streaming service to launch a proprietary voice assistant, joining fellow top-tier competitors Spotify and Apple Music and potentially positioning itself for a piece of the booming smart-speaker market.

Pandora Voice Mode arrives later than expected, yet the timing could very well be just patient planning. Voice Mode is a native app that doesn’t require additional hardware and reportedly is more personalized. And more: the smart-speaker market has heated up and there’s been a flurry of strategic voice moves around the segment, from phone to car to home:

  • SiriusXM announced it would acquire Pandora in September 2018, then announced in January it and Visa will be launching a new driving payment solution using voice and touchscreen command. 
  • Around the same time, Deezer announced it would be on Google Home, and would also be available to listen to on Amazon Echo devices and any speaker that supports Alexa voice control.
  • And in January, Spotify announced it would roll out a voice-controlled in-car music player later this year, marking its first push into hardware. 
  • Meanwhile, Apple, Google and Amazon, which control the smartphones and connected speakers that most of Spotify’s subscribers use, are pushing their own rival streaming services.

There are questions. Just how far will Pandora go to get its share of the nascent smart-speaker market? Is Spotify finally ready to make its move? Will Apple HomePod rise above adversity? The major players are leaning in either way. And why not, people mostly use smart speakers to play music and smart-speakers sales are going strong.

The Hot Pair: Music and Smart Speakers

The last holiday season was a watershed moment. Nearly one in 10 people either gave or received a smart speaker, bringing the total number in U.S. circulation to around 119 million at year close. Between 2017 and 2018, smart speaker use grew by 78 percent. Worldwide revenue jumped 150% to become a $20 million business with Amazon, Google and Alibaba at the top. China is projected to be home to 85 million smart-speaker users this year. Demand is steadily growing elsewhere in the world, as voice technology from several services speaks across different makers, like Sonos.

This doesn’t come without drama. While Apple Music has been ahead of the curve, analysts are watching Spotify for its move to bundle proprietary voice and speaker, too. Rumors have been stirring, remarking that Spotify, without a proprietary smart speaker, is out of position against Apple, Amazon and Google.

“Spotify needs to innovate its way out of the competitive quandary it’s in,” Forbes reported. “It’s now facing its biggest challenge yet: hardware makers that are blocking its connection to customers.”

Table: Music Services with Proprietary Voice and Speaker Combined

ServiceVoice AssistantSmart Speaker
Apple Music (#1)SiriApple HomePod
Spotify (#2)Spotify Voice
Pandora Radio (#3)Pandora Voice Mode
Google Play MusicGoogle AssistantGoogle Home
iHeart Radio
Amazon MusicAmazon AlexaAmazon Echo
TuneIn Radio

Is a Convergence Already Happening?

Smart speakers are pressed to still win buyer confidence. Shopping is on everyone’s digital agenda but relatively few people use voice for that purpose, although Amazon’s aggressive Alexa push aims to change that. Music streaming is one area where smart speakers are clearly succeeding. The majority of users are using them for that very purpose.

“Smart speakers are poised to kickstart the next stage of the music-streaming revolution,” said Geoff Taylor, CEO of BP and the Brit Awards. “Playlists curated by streaming services are already an essential marketing channel for music, and their influence will only increase as AI-powered voice assistants help to select what tracks to play.”

Of course new revenue opportunities in the form of data, subscriptions and advertising is the point of having an integrated voice and smart speaker strategy, after all.

Pandora Voice Mode: What to Know

Pandora’s Voice Mode is a native assistant giving smartphone users control over what they want to listen to by saying…wait for it…”Hey Pandora.” According to Pandora, it’s an “intuitive, hands-free experience tailored for the unique tastes of each user.” The service will roll out Voice Mode to some listeners on iOS and Android, with more widespread availability later.

  • Through Pandora’s formidable AI, Voice Mode claims to provide a more personalized listening experience rather than serving up what they want you to listen to.
  • Users can control portions of the app such as changing stations, skipping or pausing tracks, adjusting volume, and other basic tasks, plus more complex, personal tasks such as “play something for my morning run” or “play something I like” from user history.
  • The built-in assistant has the ability to handle many different requests using Natural Language Understanding technology alongside Pandora’s standard music recommendation engine.