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Just over one in five Americans 18+ (21%) own a smart speaker, or around 53 million people, according to the Spring 2019 edition of The Smart Audio Report from Edison Research and NPR. But those who have had one for some time are doing fewer things with them and concerns about privacy and security are discouraging consumers who haven’t bought one from taking the smart speaker plunge.

The number of smart speakers in use in the U.S. rose to an estimated 118.5 million in December 2018, for a 78% spike from 66.7 million in December 2017. That’s due in large part to people owning more than one. “If you own a smart speaker, chances are you own at least two of them,” Edison Research Senior VP Tom Webster said during a webinar Tuesday. And that has placed the voice-activated devices in multiple rooms in the household.

“From the very beginning smart speakers were existential for NPR,” said Joel Sucherman, VP, New Platform Partnerships at the public radio network, which has partnered with Edison on the Smart Audio report since its June 2017 inception. “The idea that these new beautiful radios showed up in people’s homes in the millions, almost overnight, was a great way for people to just do basic things” such as listening to live station streams, podcasts and on-demand content.

Video Smart Speakers

While the availability of cheaper smart speakers has been a big growth driver, the addition of video screens built into the devices is now also having an impact. While most owners (69%) have smart speakers without screens, a growing group of owners (27%) now own both types of smart speakers.

Interest in video smart speakers is on the rise – nearly three in ten of those that own a smart speaker without a video screen are interested in owning a screen-enabled device. Already, the addition of video screens to devices like Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub is aiding in content discovery and ease of use. Two thirds of those who own a smart speaker with a screen say it has made it easier to discover new content, and the same number say having a screen makes the smart speaker easier to use.

That’s important since discovering content on smart speakers remains a challenge for many. Most device owners rely on recommendations from friends and family (45%) to discover new skills or actions for their smart speakers. Other discovery means, like emails from the smart speaker brand (34%), searching the smart speaker app (29%), and recommendations from the speaker (24%) are used by fewer device owners.

“Discovery is a challenge on these devices,” Webster told the webinar audience. “Educating people about what a certain skill does or why they even need a skill is a challenge for all kinds of brands.” Not only are the devices sometimes intimidating, but 69% of owners surveyed by Edison agree that they don’t know enough about their smart speaker to use all of its features.

‘Companion Device’

Yet despite these challenges, Webster said smart speakers have emerged as a “a true companion device” that enables multitasking. Nearly three in four (74%) use them in a typical week while doing household chores, 66% while cooking and 59% while getting ready for their day. But the devices are also in use while entertaining (56%), browsing the web (44%), working out (42%), getting ready for bed (32%) and even watching TV (31%).

In many respects, smart speakers have become a utility device for activities such as playing music (77% of device owners), getting the weather (75%), answering a general question (74%), setting an alarm (53%) and getting the news (42%). Broadcasters see the devices as a modern day equivalent of the clock radio and the new data shows nearly four in ten owners (37%) use their device weekly to listen to an AM/FM radio station streams. Significantly for broadcasters, 55% agree they are listening to more audio since getting a smart speaker.

Despite their rapid adoption and array of uses, there are concerns, among both owners and non-owners, that the devices could be used in nefarious ways. A majority of owners (58%) and non-owners (63%) are concerned that hackers could use a smart speaker to gain access to their home or personal information. In fact this is the top reason given for not acquiring one, followed by 55% who are bothered that smart speakers are always listening. “People do worry about the amount of info these devices are learning about us,” Webster pointed out. On the other hand, more than half (54%) of owners trust the companies that make the devices to keep their personal info secure. Sucherman said it underlines the importance of “keeping the trust of users,” who are willing to give up a certain amount of data in a “handshake agreement” that it won’t be misused.

Impediments To Further Adoption

The study also shows the impediments to further adoption have changed dramatically in the past two years. In 2017 consumers cited cost as the main reason for not purchasing one. Today it’s concerns about privacy and security – 63% of those who don’t own one, but would like to get one, say they worry that hackers could use smart speakers to get access to their home or personal information. That’s up sharply from 41% in 2017. Worries that the device is always listening also mushroomed to 55% in 2019 from 36% in 2017. And four in ten fret that smart speakers could allow the government to listen to their private conversations, up from 34% two years ago, a worry shared by almost half (49%) of existing smart speaker owners.

In addition, 60% of non-owners say they don’t need that type of technology in their lives.

Among those who haven’t taken the plunge, interest in owning a smart speaker is highest in radio’s prime demo of 35-54 where 29% say they are interested in acquiring one. Millennials aged 18-34 are close behind at 26%.

Despite concerns, the smart speaker shine hasn’t worn off yet for the 53 million Americans that own one. Seven in 10 (69%) use the device daily and 44% say they are using it more often than in the first month they bought it, compared to 35% who indicate about the same amount and 21% less often. But as these devices become more prevalent in people’s lives, they’re using them for fewer things. Those who have had one for three months or less say they used an average of 11.7 skills in the past week. The number drops to 10.2 for three months to less than six month, 9.5 for six months to a year and 7.0 for two years or more. But generally speaking the longer the ownership period, the more likely owners are to agree with the statement, “You wouldn’t want to go back to life without your smart speaker.”