Half of smart speaker users say they don’t seek out any voice apps at all

Every other smart speaker user who participated in a survey by voice software site Voicebot and Voicify, which makes developer tools, has said they don’t discover any voice apps.

Conducted by polling 1,038 smart speaker owners in the United States, the survey has discovered that the other half of respondents who find voice apps do so thanks to friends (26.8 percent), social media (15.4 percent), email newsletters (11.1 percent), advertisements (10.5 percent), news media (7.2 percent) and other ways (2.9 percent).

Half of the respondents say they don’t seek out any voice apps at all

But only a meager 13.7 percent of the respondents said they discovered new voice apps through their speaker’s official app store. To put it differently: less than one out of each seven respondents didn’t even know how to find an official app store for their device. And that, boys and girls, highlights a major issue with smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo that offer downloadable software: app visibility and discoverability.

Matt Day, writing for Bloomberg yesterday:

Echo-branded smart speakers have attracted millions of fans with their ability to play music and respond to queries spoken from across the room. But almost four years after inviting outside developers to write apps for Alexa, Amazon’s voice system has yet to offer a transformative new experience.

Surveys show most people use their smart speakers to listen to tunes or make relatively simple requests—’Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes’—while more complicated tasks prompt them to give up and reach for their smartphone.

Amazon offers a whopping 80,000 Alexa apps (skills) in its store, but the advent of the smart speaker has not triggered an app gold rush like we saw with the modern smartphone.

Enable Do Not Disturb in Alexa app on iPhone
Smart speakers rely on your smartphone to download voice apps

None of this concerns HomePod directly because Apple’s accessory offers no downloadable apps. That said, this is an interesting problem to ponder because HomePod may, and probably will, offer third-party apps at some point in the future. And when that day arrives, how are we going to download and, more importantly, discover cool new HomePod apps?

This is how Amazon is tackling app discoverability issues:

Amazon has gotten creative to get people to try new things, emailing recommendations to Echo owners, programming a range of prompts users can say aloud to try new things and referring users to the companion Alexa smartphone app.

One image on Amazon’s screen-bearing Echo Show model seems to playfully acknowledge that challenge, showing a cartoon image of a person fishing overlaid with text suggesting people ask Alexa what skills are available.

Blogs, social media and ads also come to mind as viable avenues for seeking out new apps. Still, the fact remains that these stores suffer from discoverability problems.

As long as HomePods remain screen-less, browsing voice apps will happen on iOS. We’ll eventually be able to download HomePod apps via voice, but that’s trivial and something you can do now on other Apple devices (try asking Siri to download Facebook from App Store).

Create Alexa Voice Profile Amazon Echo
Should HomePod have its own companion app like Amazon’s Echo devices?

What HomePod would tremendously benefit from is a visual storefront. Voice is only useful if you know the app’s title beforehand so some kind of a visual interface would be a must.

We’d also need a dedicated HomePod app with a built-in store akin to the companion Watch app for Apple Watch that includes a watchOS store. While a standalone helper app for HomePod would make sense, I think a store should be integrated in the Home app as it already provides a settings interface for the Siri speaker.

Looking at the big picture, Apple could even set up a dedicated HomeKit store that might also provide HomePod apps because the Home app already treats your HomePod as yet another HomeKit accessory. That might also help with app discoverability: you’d browse voice apps in the Home app much in the same way you browse watchOS store within the Watch app.

Apple Music in Alexa App Skills and Games
Apple Music listed as a downloadable app in the companion Alexa app.

I just hope such a store will be visible for average Joes rather than end up being ignored by the majority of users, like the iMessage store. I just hope Apple won’t distribute HomePod apps as extensions of their iOS counterparts.

That same model, employed for iMessage and other extension-based apps, has not proven itself very successful. And even if Apple provided an SDK for third-party HomePod development, creating voice apps could very well be easier said than done.

Amazon, which declined to comment, created a novel new technology with Alexa. But it poses problems for developers, who encounter a steep learning curve in building voice apps. Swapping visual cues for verbal ones forces them to unlearn old habits from building software for smartphones and the web.

Even after creating an app, there’s no guarantee people will find it. While smartphone users can quickly eyeball a list of available apps on a screen, multiple options get lost easily on a voice-based service.

Lastly, it’s unclear if writing HomePod apps would yield any immediate payoff for developers. I want to be wrong on this but am highly suspicious that the average smart speaker owner would be willing to part with their hard-earned cash to buy an app for their device.

If you’re a developer, you’re facing a whole set of other challenges. Making matters even worse, it’s unclear at this stage if voice-based apps for smart speakers could ever support a self-sustaining business model.

Managing HomePod alarms through the Home app for iPhone

Juniper Research analyst James Moar said that people have come to expect the usual types of apps on a smart speaker that include things like a daily news summary, weather, timers and a random fact. Beyond that, “people aren’t really experimenting that much,” he said.

As developer Mark Einhorn summed it up: “This platform is almost four years old and you can’t point me to one single killer app.” Mark should know, he created a well-reviewed Alexa game that lets users operate a simulated lemonade stand.

Amazon says four out of five Alexa users have tried a skill developed by outsiders. Dave Limp, the senior vice president who oversees the Alexa and devices group, said last year that music, for many, was the killer app.

So-called smart home skills that let people use Alexa voice commands to control home appliances have also emerged as a popular use for the software. Many of those functions were built by Amazon itself, or are modified versions of software other large companies, like Spotify or streaming video providers, had already created.

Regardless of the route the Cupertino company might take—and assuming we’ll eventually see downloadable HomePod apps—it’s going to have to figure out how to deal with and solve the major app discoverability and visibility issues that Amazon is currently dealing with.

Browsing voice apps would be easy on a future HomePod with a built-in screen similar to this Amazon Echo Show

What do you think? How should Apple implement a HomePod store? How would you solve the app discoverability problem assuming there’s no other interface for directly browsing a store on the device other than Siri. And while we’re at it, do we need HomePod apps at all?

Chime in with your thoughts in the comments down below.