It’s easy to dismiss the smart-display market.
A smart display is like an Amazon Echo- or Google Home-style virtual assistant appliance, but with a screen that can show visual results, rather than just spoken ones, and facilitate video calls.
Right now, the only smart displays you can buy are Amazon’s creepy Echo Look, an appliance whose main function is to watch you get dressed, and the Echo Spot, which looks like a bedroom alarm clock with a tiny screen.
Don’t worry. Help is on the way in the form of smart displays that are less concerned about your outfits and more concerned with offering all-purpose help with whatever you’re doing.
These will arrive, in the form of Google Assistant-powered smart displays, next month from LG Electronics, Lenovo and JBL, and by the end of the year from Sony. (Google is already rolling out support on the server side, and some Google Assistant users are seeing a new “Smart Displays” category show up under the Availability section of their Settings. I’m seeing it, for example, on my Pixelbook.)
Early reviews of these devices reveal that the first iteration of Google’s visual UI for these devices is very good.
In reality, Google has been preparing for this moment for a long time. It worked on Google Now for years, and the company’s “Cards”-based interface elements work great on the smart display platform.
The utility of Google Assistant smart displays is boosted by existing mature Google products such as YouTube (unavailable on the Amazon products because of an ongoing dispute between the companies) and Duo for video calls.
For IoT control, Google’s Smart Display platform uses Android Things.
In other words, the smart-display version of Google Assistant is new, but it’s constructed primarily out of mature, well-designed parts.
Samsung is expected to unveil a Bixby-powered smart display — I’m guessing in late February. The Samsung display might look like a cartoonish robot with a simple “face” that turns and faces whoever is speaking to it, according to patents.
Facebook is working on a social smart display. It makes sense that it might be an extension of the Facebook Messenger platform.
No doubt Apple will eventually enter the market with a version of HomePod that has a screen.
The Smart Displays are coming for sure. Make no mistake, however, the contest in this market will be entirely between Amazon and Google.
Why smart displays are best for business
It’s early days in the burgeoning smart-display universe. Still, it’s important to understand how very different it will be compared with virtual assistants and their audio appliances.
Ultimately, the core attributes of virtual assistants, virtual assistant appliances and smart displays are very different.
The core attribute of virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and others is ubiquity. You’ll be able to interact with them on your watch, phone, laptop, desktop, car dashboard, smart glasses, home appliance, office appliance and others. They’ll always be “there,” even outdoors.
The core attribute of audio-only virtual assistant appliances such as the original Echo line or the current Google Home product is indoor “ambience.” To use an Amazon Echo, for example, you don’t even have to know where it is. You just “talk to the room,” and the room talks back. It seems logical to put virtual assistant appliances in every room of a house.
But smart displays are completely different. Instead of offering ubiquity or ambience, they’re used like a terminal. To take advantage of their screens and cameras, you’ll face the device from a close distance, and they’ll face you.
As a result, the two places where a general-purpose smart display makes the most sense are the kitchen and the office.
(Yes, there’s a place for Amazon’s odd bedroom smart displays, and a smart display in a living room has its uses. But these locations aren’t where this platform really shines.)
Unlike a laptop, which you can use while working at Starbucks or during a meeting pretty much anywhere, a smart display won’t make sense when other people are around. Like an audio virtual assistant, you have to talk to it and it has to talk to you. But a smart display shows as well as tells, which means it’s great for things like sitting on a kitchen counter and displaying a recipe.
The ideal place to interact with a smart display is when you’re alone in a room with it — or when a group of people are all using the device. In other words, it’s the ultimate office or meeting room appliance, with very highly defined practical functions.
And that’s why smart displays are ultimately headed for offices, businesses and enterprises.
They’ll arrive there in the same way PCs, smartphones and wearables did: smuggled behind the firewall by enthusiast employees and executives.
Here comes BYOSD
The “bring your own smart display” era begins in mere weeks.
I’m predicting that a non-trivial number of people will bring their Lenovo Smart Displays into work and put them on their desks to get instant answers, make easy video calls and generally get reminders about their meetings — and a million other uses.
(While all smart displays are ostensibly designed for home use, they are in fact general-purpose devices with many uses for business people. The JBL Link View, however, is more of an audio appliance, and the LG ThinQ View is alarm-clockish. The smart money for BYOSD in the early days is the Lenovo line.)
The coming BYOSD movement will be attended by all the usual nightmares for the IT people within organizations concerned about safeguarding data and intellectual property. They represent to this group an internet-connected array of cameras and microphones inside the firewall. The most immediate concern, however, is that they’re communication devices functioning outside the compliance regime.
Employees will immediately begin chattering away on them via text, video and otherwise, and none of this will be easily recordable.
Still, the devices themselves will prove indispensable, and so they’ll have to be brought into centralized monitoring and control.
Amazon is working hard on this with its Alexa for Business program.
Google will no doubt come out with its own version.
These programs will change everything.
Why smart displays will eat the enterprise
Smart displays seem today like a nascent, but trivial, new product category. Tomorrow, I think they’ll dominate enterprise communication.
The three main categories of equipment for business communication are the phone system (the PBX or IP BPX), the teleconferencing equipment (conference room speakerphone systems) and videoconferencing systems.
I think the future of all three categories will ultimately be built on top of Amazon’s and Google’s platforms for smart displays.
This will be the easiest way to enhance business communication with artificial intelligence, voice interactivity and other benefits.
The cameras and microphones on these future communication appliances will identify and authenticate users, for example, making the automated taking of notes and minutes a trivial task, and also enabling individuals to interact with their personal assistant using shared resources.
When the new wave of home smart displays hits the market next month, be aware that this is also opening the door to the future of enterprise communication.
Smart displays are coming to the enterprise, and soon.