People

Voice is having a moment in our work-from-home world

Smart speakers and displays are seeing increased usage and experimentation since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Google Home speaker on a table

While some of the voice trends emerging from shelter-in-place are not entirely surprising, others are more profound and will likely have long-term implications on the use of voice technology in the home.

Photo: Thomas Kolnowski/Unsplash

Every workday at 5 p.m. sharp, a speaker in the corner of Mark Spates' home office starts playing bossa nova. Spates, who leads Google's smart speaker efforts, set up this routine a couple of weeks into shelter-in-place after realizing that he was working 12-hour days without a break. Now, the Brazilan rhythms remind him to take a breather.

It's just one example of how smart speakers are quickly becoming a more integral part of people's lives in the work-from-home era. "Usage is up overall," Spates said, because "everyone is at home." While some of the voice trends emerging from shelter-in-place are not entirely surprising, others are more profound and will likely have long-term implications on the use of voice technology in the home.

Forty-one percent of U.S. broadband households own a smart speaker or smart display, according to Parks Associates. Among those households, music listening and video viewing on smart speakers and displays are up significantly during shelter-in-place, with Spates calling out Chromecast usage in particular as something that has grown a lot over the past couple of months.

Recipes are also being used a lot more, especially on smart displays. Consumers are "looking for the assistant to become their sous chef," Spates said. Some of the most popular voice requests are down, including questions about traffic conditions and potential rain. "You're not so worried what's the weather today," Spates said, adding that home security also was less of a concern for many people since they're not actually leaving the house.

Those observations are echoed by a recent NPR/Edison Research report, which found that simple "what time is it" questions have also declined during shelter-in-place. Media consumption, on the other hand, has increased significantly during the pandemic, with NPR/Edison finding that 36% of the smart speaker owners it surveyed were listening to more music and entertainment, and 35% reporting more news consumption.

Video chat on compatible smart displays has seen massive growth, Spates said. "Video calling is the really big shift that happened," he said. "Everyone calls Grandma." Google introduced a first smart display with an integrated camera last year, and Spates said that he expects those devices will continue to be used for communication even after shelter-in-place is lifted. "I don't think that's going to go away," he said. "It's the new norm."

Other shifts are more subtle but could be just as consequential in the long run. "Beforehand, the house was very transient," Spates said. Now, voice-controlled speakers and smart displays are becoming a lot more family-oriented, which includes group calls but also other shared interactions. And with everyone stuck at home, we observe each other interacting with these devices, picking up cues on how to get the most out of voice assistants. "These devices are extremely communal," Spates said. "Every person learns from each other."

Early data also seems to suggest that smart speakers are starting to permeate more of the home, moving beyond the kitchen or living room. Seventy-one percent of the people surveyed by NPR/ Edison in early April said that they were thinking about getting another speaker to entertain children in additional rooms of their house, compared to 47% who expressed that intent a year earlier. Spates said that his team has seen an increased use of speakers for bedtime stories and similar children's entertainment.

Aside from these patterns, Spates and his team are also seeing a lot more experimentation, with consumers using timers and reminders in unexpected ways to make smart speakers work for their personal shelter-in-place needs. He is taking some of these cues and is now thinking about ways of incorporating them into future product and feature ideas, which could include additional wellness nudges to discourage unhealthy work-from-home habits — with or without bossa nova.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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