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Google Home's mastermind has no intention of losing to Amazon

Once a year, the geeky faithful make their way to Silicon Valley to attend Google I/O, the company’s (GOOG, GOOGL) developer conference. Most of what transpires there is programmer gibberish to the uninitiated—but there are always a few eye-popping news bits for the masses.

This year, one of the most interesting developments was Google’s continued push to make its Google Home device—basically an Amazon Echo clone—distinctive and essential.

I had the chance to chat with Rishi Chandra, Google’s vice president for all things Google Home.

He covered what’s new (or coming very soon) in the Google Home device, but first he emphasized that none of it could have happened without the big new feature, person recognition. That is, the Google Home now knows who is speaking, and can deliver the answer based on that person’s calendar, work commute, music playlists, Uber account, and so on. (Here’s my full writeup of that feature.)

“It knows who’s talking,” Chandra told me. “In the end, an assistant can only be so useful if it understands who you are, right? So, if my wife is asking something about her calendar, then it needs to answer with her calendar. And if I’m asking, it needs to be answered with my calendar. And that’s actually enabled all of the announcements we were making today.”

(And one more that Google didn’t make: Shortly, Google Home will let you add or edit calendar appointments and reminders by voice, and read email summaries to you by voice. What took so long? Simple, Chandra says: Those features didn’t make sense until the Home could tell who’s talking—whose calendar and email to check.)

Rishi Chandra, vice president of product management and general manager of home products, speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

So what are the big new features? First, conversations with Home no longer have to begin with you. If it notices something that you might find important—a traffic delay for an upcoming appointment, or a flight delay—its ring glows to get your attention. When you say “OK Google, what’s up?”, it gives you the bad news.

Second, free phone calls. “The most interesting and most exciting thing that we announced today is the ability to use Google Home to call different phone numbers. The ability to say, like, ‘hey Google, call mom.’ It can call any land-line or mobile number in Canada or US for free.”

Note that this is not the same thing that Amazon added to its Echo last week—free calls between Amazon (AMZN) Echos (or Amazon apps). This is free phone calls to phone numbers.

Finally, Google Home can now send certain of its responses to a nearby screen, like your phone or TV.

“For certain things, voice is not going to be good enough, right? You need to see a visual,” Chandra said. “So, in case I want to get maps, you’d get a notification right on your phone that says, ‘hey, you can actually go open a Google Maps right now with the exact location you’re trying to go.’”

Google has lagged Amazon in the number of smarthome or Internet of Things gadgets you can control by voice, too—but that’s about to change, Chandra says.

“We’re catching up significantly. When we launched Google Home, we had four partners. Today, any third party developer/device manufacturer can start interfacing with the assistant on their own. So, it’s a self-publishing tool. And so, we expect this to go from the 70 to hundreds of different integrations.”

The Amazon Echo, now in nearly 11 million homes, has had an impressive head start. But clearly, Google has no intention of settling for second place.

More from David Pogue:

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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.

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