Gizmos

Should Spotify Make Its Own Smart Speaker?

Apple Music will soon pass it in subscribers. It could be time for Spotify to move into hardware.

Spotify speaker.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Smart speakers have become one of the hottest markets in consumer tech. Amazon Echos and Google Homes were among the most popular gifts this past holiday season, and that sales bump solidified Amazon as the leader in the space. Apple has since struggled to catch up, with its recently launched HomePod, but other hardware makers have rushed to get in on the hype, integrating Alexa and Google Assistant into their own headphones, wearables, and speakers.

Each of the three big smart-speaker platforms includes its own integrated music player—Amazon Prime Music, Google Play Music, and Apple Music. But for 159 million music lovers, another app is their player of choice: Spotify. With the Echo and Google Home, you need to head into the app’s settings, connect your account with Spotify, and then select it as your default music player. Apple’s HomePod doesn’t even technically support third-party music services—it’s designed specifically for Apple Music. Spotify plays second fiddle to these platforms’ native music players, but that may not always be the case.

Spotify is testing its own native voice-control technology, TechCrunch confirmed Thursday. According to a video uploaded by one user with access to the beta feature, you can ask aloud for Spotify to do things like, “Play my Discover Weekly,” “Show Calvin Harris,” or play a particular genre of music. Spotify said that the capability is “just a test for now,” but with an IPO looming, the company is undoubtedly looking for ways to expand its brand and presence. Voice control could be an end in itself. Could it also signal something bigger is in the works?

If launched widely in its app, voice commands could prove useful in hands-free environments like the car, a space Spotify has experimented with in the past. It could be especially handy on iOS, where Siri is zero help when it comes to navigating the app by voice. (Google Assistant is more useful.) But with its own native voice-based commands, Spotify frees itself from the restraints of being a software add-on to an existing platform like Amazon Alexa or Google Home. Without needing their respective assistants for voice-based actions, Spotify is free to delve into new territory—a speaker of its own.

This could be an important tactic in battling Spotify’s biggest competitor, Apple Music, which is set to eclipse it in subscribers before the year’s end at its current growth rate. Taking a cue from Apple, Spotify could build a speaker focused on high-quality music and audio—like Apple’s HomePod, but with Spotify as the exclusive music app. Perhaps like an Echo Dot, it could be small or—because it may lack a true virtual assistant—something that could augment other existing smart home speakers in the house.

Spotify already has a small hardware play: It’s baked into a handful of speakers and TVs already through Spotify Connect, but that integration has shortcomings. Spotify Connect merely streams the app’s audio through another device, freeing up your phone for other uses. However, if you want to change songs or playlists, you still need to go through the app. Spotify’s voice-control feature could at least make working with these connected products a smoother experience, but it can do better.

Spotify wouldn’t necessarily need to build its own audio equipment from the ground up. The music app could instead partner with an established speaker maker like Bose on such a product. If this were the case, Spotify would have a hardware product where its services are at the forefront instead of an afterthought. Meanwhile, its hardware partner—a company similarly being left out of the smart speaker conversation—would have an additional avenue to compete against products by Amazon, Google, and Apple.

Spotify is one of the most popular music-streaming platforms, and it stands to reason that for those who use—or plan to use—a smart speaker for listening, there could be a market for dedicated Spotify hardware. By breaking out from its digital confines, perhaps the company could see a new level of adoption and brand recognition that could help it best its biggest rival, Apple Music. All the biggest, most trusted companies in the tech world offer a mix of hardware and software services to consumers. If Spotify wants to level up and join those ranks—and combat the threat of newer streaming-music players—it should be considering how hardware could help it do that.