Which of these tech giants won 2020 in the smart home, as much as that's possible? Has Amazon's aggressive development of Alexa finally closed the gap with the smarter Google Assistant? Will Apple's $99 Homepod Mini earn it a larger share of the Amazon- and Google-dominated smart speaker market?
We're David Priest and Molly Price, CNET's writers covering Amazon, Apple and Google in the smart home, and we're finishing 2020 with a critical conversation about what the exact state of play is among these Silicon Valley behemoths.
Who's winning the race for our countertops?
David: I want to start this conversation with Apple, because for years they've been kind of the tortoise to Google's and especially Amazon's hares. Until the end of 2020, the only smart speaker Apple sold was the expensive Homepod, which peaked at a 5% share of the total smart speaker market in the US. Meanwhile, Amazon launched half a dozen smart speakers and displays in 2019 alone, and Google followed not far behind, in large part thanks to its popular Nest Mini.
But now everything's changed, because Apple introduced a budget speaker to compete with… well, it's unclear exactly what it competes with, because it's roughly the size of the Echo Dot and Nest Mini, but it's the price of the much stronger Echo and Nest Audio speakers. Quibbles aside, though, the Homepod Mini is really putting Apple into much closer competition with its rivals.
Molly, you reviewed the Homepod Mini. Can you speak to how much it will or won't shake up the smart speaker race for our countertops?
Molly: Apple certainly jumped back into the game this year when it comes to smart speakers. The HomePod Mini debuted at $99. That's about as cheap as any standalone Apple product comes these days. It sounds great, looks Apple-y and does everything you'd expect it to do as a smart home starting point. The only thing it's missing is the broad selection of compatible third-party devices Amazon and Google offer. I was convinced Apple didn't care about the smart home anymore, but the HomePod Mini felt like more than just an afterthought.
D: Agreed. Meanwhile, Amazon and Google have continued to add steadily to their existing product lines. Amazon's new full-size Echo and Dot smart speakers are popular and are both selling at the time of this conversation for $70 and $30, respectively. Those prices are pretty crazy, especially considering the quality of the products -- in particular the full-size Echo.
The other thing to keep in mind for Amazon is that, although it's the one smart speaker developer without a suite of other phone-centric services to key into (Apple's speakers cooperate better with iOS and Google's speakers cooperate better with Android), it is owned by the world's largest online distributor. That means Amazon can work to sell its smart home devices more effectively than pretty much any competitor.
So who is winning the race for our countertops?
Notable improvement: Apple
But which platforms, devices and assistants are the best?
D: OK, market penetration is one conversation, but let's talk about the real quality of the devices -- that's the most important thing for potential customers anyway, right? While the full-size Echo smart speaker was one of my favorite smart home devices of the year -- between its reasonable price tag and its excellent sound quality -- I will admit I was a little disappointed that Amazon's new Echo Show 10 smart display, which follows you around the room with its screen and camera, won't launch this year. More than any year in recent memory, 2020 seems like it would've been a perfect opportunity for these companies to make a compelling case for smart displays -- and that opportunity went largely missed.
Of course, no one else launched a great smart display this year either, so I can't knock Amazon too much.
Molly, what's your read on the voice assistance race? Google Assistant has traditionally been CNET's favorite, but are Alexa and Siri catching up?
M: Alexa is catching up. Amazon recently announced live translation for Echo Show devices, predictive smart home actions for all Alexa devices and Amazon Sidewalk, a feature that slices off a small part of your Wi-Fi bandwidth to enable long-range transmissions with things outside the home, like smart lawn lights and Tile trackers. It's these seemingly smaller innovations that can add up to big advantages over other brands.
Siri? Not so much. As a voice assistant, Siri can accomplish the basics -- but it doesn't sound as naturalistic as Alexa or Google Assistant, and its answers to questions often miss the mark. There are definitely a few cool tricks up Apple's sleeve when it comes to HomePod and smart home integration (and I'm betting we'll see more thanks to their new U1 chip), but Siri otherwise stayed largely the same.
Google released a series of updates for smart displays this year with a focus on, you guessed it, staying connected and online learning (though it warrants a note that only the $230 Nest Hub Max display includes a camera for video chatting). All the incremental updates I saw this year still didn't add up to anything that felt significantly innovative. Honestly, it doesn't surprise me that smart assistants feel like they're plateauing five-ish years in.
D: Yeah, I totally agree here. At this point, aside from Siri's obvious lack of polish compared to its competitors, we kind of know what voice assistants can do, and that likely won't change much other than through slow iteration.
Google remains the most naturalistic voice assistant, but Amazon's ambitious innovations are putting Alexa and Alexa-driven devices in close contention with Google's counterparts. Meanwhile, despite the HomePod Mini, Apple fans are still left with a subpar voice assistant and smart speakers that don't earn their premium price tag. And, correct me if I'm wrong, Molly, but the same pattern sort of holds true with smart home platforms: Amazon and Google Assistant both boast thousands of partnerships, whereas Apple's HomeKit lags behind a bit, right?
M: Right. When it comes to smart home integration, consumers have so many more hardware options on Amazon and Google's platforms. For nearly every device category, you can find a cheap "works with Google/Alexa" version online. That isn't true for HomeKit. This could be the biggest thing holding Apple back from really taking over the smart home space the way it did with phones, watches and tablets.
Not every device compatible with Google or Alexa is a good one from a quality standpoint. That puts the onus on consumers to decide what's worthy of space in their home. Apple is certainly more selective and leans toward higher-end, better-established brands for the smart home.
Winner: Tie between Amazon/Google
Needs improvement: Apple
Which company is most responsible with your data?
D: I've written a fair amountabout privacy and security, and to my mind, this is where Apple has a clear edge over competitors. With security in particular, Apple has maintained high standards for partner devices -- and the company, aside from saving some Siri recordings (which Google and Amazon both do, too), has largely avoided privacy scandals.
Google's security seems to be a little tighter in 2020, thanks in part to 2019's (admittedly messy) shift from the Works with Nest ecosystem to the Works with Google Assistant one. Essentially, that change limited the control third-party devices could exert (and information they could extract) from core Google devices in your smart home network. Meanwhile, from a privacy standpoint, Google doesn't have a sterling record, but it didn't see problems at the scale of 2019's.
After all that, who do you think had the best 2020 in terms of being responsible with customer data, Molly?
M: This is the toughest and perhaps the most important question to answer when you think about bringing an assistant and an entire platform onto your home network. Apple certainly put forth the most public effort (at least in advertising) when it comes to hyping up how secure their stuff is.
That's not an empty boast, either. Apple sacrificed having a big bucket of compatible devices in order to have a smaller, more curated pool of devices that met tougher security standards. While that can make for a limiting smart home setup, it's an impressive show of restraint by Tim Cook & Co.
If you keep up with your passwords and app updates, actively manage what data is collected by each app and opt out of whatever Amazon might be sending into the ether automatically, you'll probably be just fine. That's a lot to ask of a busy consumer who likely just wants to plug and play without worrying about what's on the other side of their device.
Apple wins here in my opinion as well. Add that to the HomePod Mini debut, and Apple suddenly has more points on the board than I expected.
D: Yep. If I remember correctly, last year's data responsibility section just ended with everyone losing, and I don't know that much has changed in that regard, particularly for Amazon and Google users. But Apple's approach to the smart home is heartening to me, not least because it prioritizes privacy and security in its messaging to consumers -- a trend that I hope catches on, to remind people that their privacy is in fact valuable, and we shouldn't be giving it away for momentary conveniences. In addition, the focus really puts Apple's reputation on the line, because after all their talk, privacy breaches could be much more damaging to their brand in the smart home than to that of their competitors.
Losers: Amazon and Google
Who wins 2020 overall?
Google has stayed surprisingly quiet this year, with its one major hardware offering -- the Nest Audio, a middle-tier smart speaker to compete with the fourth-gen Echo -- landing a tepid review from us. Google Assistant has stayed strong, but hasn't improved as much as Alexa. Overall, while we wouldn't go so far as to say Google has lost ground in 2020, it certainly hasn't gained any.
Apple, by contrast, entered the smart home race in earnest this year, thanks to the HomePod Mini. In addition, it's helping shift the smart home conversation toward privacy and security, while Amazon and Google seem content to do only what's necessary to keep users on their platforms. While Siri and HomeKit certainly have room to grow, the Cupertino kid is poised for great things in the coming years (if it doesn't take another multiple-year break from serious smart home investment).
But even Apple's impressive strides couldn't help it overtake Amazon, a commerce giant that continues to dominate the market, thanks to its aggressive development of Alexa, its consistent production of boundary-pushing devices and a perhaps slightly underdeveloped conscience.
Smart home winner of 2020: Amazon (for better or worse)