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6 Reasons Consumers Don’t Own Smart Speakers, and Which Ones Matter

Image by Mrschimpf (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Though smart speaker ownership has grown quickly over the last few years, there are plenty of reasons that people are holding off from acquiring one, according to the new Spring 2019 Smart Audio Report from Edison Research and NPR. The report, based on surveys of more than 1,600 people, took a look at a wide range of habits and motivations of smart audio devices, but the responses of people without a smart speaker are particularly interesting.

Of the respondents, 812 own a smart speaker, and 829 do not. There’s hardly uniformity within the group that doesn’t have a smart speaker, however. On a scale of one to five, a plurality of 43 percent of that group has no interest in a smart speaker at all, while the rest have a range of interest in potentially owning one, 11 percent said they are very interested.

No Necessity

The central reason people don’t want to have a smart speaker is as simple as not believing they need the technology. The study found that 60 percent of people who don’t own a smart speaker cite a lack of need as the main reason.

“If you’re not an early adopter, it’s not necessarily something you see a crying need for, that big hole in your life,” NPR VP/New Platform Partnerships Joel Sucheman said. “But, once you have it you start to see the convenience. For most people, not everybody.”

That’s a big change from studies back in 2017 when the cost was a central reason for people not buying a smart speaker. The rapid drop in smart speaker cost has changed that equation. For this group though, the change in cost hasn’t made the need for a smart speaker apparent as of yet.

Wanting, Not Owning

Of the 57 percent of people who don’t own a smart speaker, but want one, the reasons for holding off are a mix of genuine worries, and not seeing the best way to fit the technology in their lives. Even for those who have some interest in owning a smart speaker, 37 percent don’t think they need it. The ten percent jump from 2017 might reflect the way other smart devices have taken up the tasks that might have gone to a smart speaker. There’s also a number of people who don’t understand what a smart speaker is, but still want one. That number has dropped significantly from 48 percent to 22 percent, as the devices have spread, but it’s still surprisingly high.

And, the price issue is still locking some potential smart speaker owners out. Though the percentage who point to price as a barrier has fallen from 60 to 53 percent, it clearly is an important element. The growing number of cheap smart speakers, including entry-level smart speakers with video displays, is likely aimed directly at that market.

Private Security

The other reasons people who want a smart speaker but don’t have one can be filed under privacy and security. Those percentages have actually gone up. The single largest group referred to worries about hackers getting their information as preventing them from buying a smart speaker, jumping from 41 to 63 percent. Stories about data breaches, in general, are more common these days, and smart speakers are not immune from the worry about cyber attacks.

A more smart speaker-specific concern by respondents is how the devices are always listening. That reason leapt from 36 to 55 percent as why people aren’t getting a smart speaker when they want one. A related issue is about whether the government could listen to private conversations. The percentage of people who say it prevents them from buying a smart speaker has also grown, from 34 to 40 percent. Edison Research SVP Tom Webster commented:

“There are some legitimate concerns here about the use of personal information and that these devices are always listening.” Privacy is the center of a lot of debate around smart speakers, and concern about it doesn’t go away when people buy smart speakers. As can be seen in the chart below, the percentage of people who worry about privacy issues is similar regardless of the ownership of a smart speaker.

That matches with a recent study by Microsoft, which found 41 percent of voice assistant users are concerned about their privacy due to passive listening by their devices. And privacy concerns have led to the development of anti-passive listening devices like Project Alias and the Mycroft Kickstarter. In response to some of the concerns, Amazon has taken steps such as creating an Alexa privacy center website and implemented a voice command to delete Alexa recordings.

That hasn’t solved all the problems though. Amazon is dealing with lawsuits and FTC complaints that it is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). On the government side, there has been debate over how to use data from smart speakers already. Amazon fought a court order to give recordings from an Echo device to law enforcement in an Arkansas murder case. They eventually did so but only after the defendant said it was fine.

Smart speaker ownership is undoubtedly on the rise. A Voicebot survey found that it had risen by 40 percent just last year, to 66.4 million in the U.S., and is continuing to expand. It may not matter why people decide not to buy one, as the numbers who don’t have or want a smart speaker fall.