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People love listening to music on smart speakers but also fear them



google homeMatt Rosoff/Business Insider

  • A survey of 3,000 people by research firm MusicWatch showed that smart speakers are prompting owners to listen to more music and online radio. 
  • The survey also found that roughly half of the respondents worry that the devices are becoming too intrusive.
  • And it’s no wonder: There have been incidents that have caused some people to wonder if the devices are spying on them.

A new survey has some good and bad news for the smart-speaker makers.

The devices, such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod, appear to encourage owners to listen to more music and web radio according to a survey of 3,000 respondents by MusicWatch, a market research company.

Since all three companies also offer music services, the devices could help drive growth in businesses like Amazon Prime Music, Google Play Music, and Apple Music. 

But the bad news is that MusicWatch also found that nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) said they were concerned that voice-assistant devices and smart speakers are becoming too intrusive, Russ Crupnick, managing partner at MusicWatch, told Business Insider.  

“It’s clear that these devices are driving music consumption,” Crupnick said. “However, as powerful and pervasive as these devices are becoming consumers still have a healthy fear about their privacy.”

Smart speakers likely will become the hottest consumer-gadget of the year. Though none of the top manufacturers reveal sales figures, research from Canalys and Strategy Analytics both estimate that sales grew 200 percent in the first quarter of 2018 from the same period a year earlier. 

People love smart speakers but don’t yet fully trust them

Smart speakers and digital assistants enable owners to speak commands, rather than keying them in. The machines can also talk back. People ask them the time, the weather, to schedule reminders and sometimes to shop. To perform these functions, some of the devices must record what owners say and then send back the information to the company. The thought of being recorded spooks some people.

Some people also fear –though there’s no proof that this has happened — is that some bad actor will intercept the recordings or somehow rig the devices to eavesdrop. A family in Portland, OR., who owned an Amazon Echo, learned that the machine erroneously interpreted commands, and recorded a conversation in their home and sent the recording to an associate.

Blacklights and turntables: The music room at Google's Toronto office.REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Beyond just that episode, there have been incidents that made some people unsettled about having these devices in their home. Google had to disable a feature on its Google Home Mini speaker after it turned out that a hardware problem caused it to listen in on a reviewer all day. More recently, Amazon had to issue a fix after some of its Echo speakers randomly erupted in a creepy laugh.

Now, the burden is on these companies to be transparent about these devices, when they record, and how much control they have over their data.

And there are signs that these companies are taking on the challenge. On Monday, when a reporter asked Google Home if it was listening, the device responded this way:

“Google Home listens for the hot word (“Hey, Google” or “Ok Google”) and after it hears it, or after you’ve physically long pressed the top of your Google Home device, it sends a recording of what you say to Google.”

That’s a more serious response but one that some people still may find unsettling.

Smart speakers could take us back to the future

Still, Crupnick said that he found nothing in his survey that indicates the privacy concerns are affecting sales or usage. On the contrary.

  • Crupnick said 55 percent of those surveyed and who own smart speakers said they are listening to their streaming music services more often.
  • He said 2/3 indicated that they’re listening to more online radio, such as NPR and iHeart radio.
  • About 75 percent said they’re re-discovering songs that they hadn’t heard in a long time.
  • In a sort of back-to-the-future response, Crupnick said that 64 percent are listening to more music at home.

It calls to mind how, decades ago, people would listen together to albums played on turntables — a kind of social music sharing which no longer exists, but that looks set to re-emerge thanks to smart speakers.

“When we conducted focus groups of smart speakers,” Crupnick said, “It was incredible to see families again gathering to listen to music. I hadn’t seen that since high school.”

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