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Smart speaker adoption stutters over Finnish language

Smart speaker use is growing worldwide, but most Finns aren't enthusiastic about virtual assistants that can't speak Finnish.

Vilja ja Varpu Valkeapää ohjaavat älykaiuttimia 29.10.2018.
Household smart speaker adoption will hit 100 million globally this year, according to analyst company Canalys. Image: Katriina Laine / Yle

Finns are still unable to ask their voice-controlled gadgets questions in their native tongue.

Smart speakers in Finland carry a small fraction of the capabilities of those in other countries. But using English, Finnish speakers can ask their voice-activated smart devices to do things like adjust the lighting in their homes or change the TV channel. Popular commands also include asking the assistants for weather updates, or playing a song from a playlist.

”In other countries, speakers can be used to order a taxi, deliver flowers or book cinema tickets,” according to Oskari Okko Ojala of Helsinki-based digital consultancy company Frantic.

Finnish left behind?

Ojala told Yle that the inability of these devices to react to Finnish commands is holding back their potential growth in the country. Users must talk to the units in English, which isn’t ideal for everyone. While Apple’s digital assistant Siri understands and speaks Finnish, its HomePod speaker has struggled to attract a large following.

Google's line of Assistant devices already understand Swedish and Danish, suggesting the possibility that Finnish may be added to Google Home's family of supported languages at some point. Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating for the past year regarding e-commerce giant Amazon’s charge into the Nordics, a move that would likely have its line of Echo devices, powered by Amazon Alexa, becoming fluent in Finnish in the future.

Amazon, which created the smart speaker market in 2015 has a majority market share of 70 percent, according to Forbes. Google's smart speakers have a hold on 24 percent of the market, while Apple trails behind both leaders with 6 percent of the segment, Forbes reported in late summer.

Ojala, however, pointed out that it is not a huge leap for Finnish companies to develop apps for smart speakers, especially if they already offer mobile device based apps.

”If you can use a text message to order a cab, it doesn’t take much more to accomplish that through a smart speaker,” he explained.

So far, only a handful of Finnish companies have jumped on the smart speaker bandwagon. One of these is Kotipizza, which has a few thousand monthly users on its Amazon Alexa skill (which is what Amazon calls its Alexa-based applications).

”These are mostly young guys interested in technology,” Johanna Kuosmanen, a digital manager at the pizza restaurant chain, told Yle.

Amazon's Alexa, however, features supported skills to access Yle content for some time now. An Yle News in English Alexa skill can be enabled via Amazon's website.

From touch to voice

Ojala said he predicts consumers will increasingly accept the use of voice commands, adding that his young kids have picked up English by asking their virtual assistant to do things. The family’s mother, Hanna Valkeapää, has been less enthusiastic about the presence of a listening device in her home.

”But they’re pretty handy too, especially in the evenings when I can’t locate the remote to turn off the TV.”

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