Google jumped into the smart assistant game today with its new Google Home device: an answer to Amazon’s Echo and the rise of personal-assistant things that sit in your kitchen and listen to everything you do. Amazon had a breakout hit with Echo, and Google has shamelessly copied the concept with its new pear-shaped Home speaker. Of course, nothing about Echo was entirely novel: wireless speakers (Jambox), ambient listening (Kinect), natural language queries (Google), and buying lots of things (Amazon), were all ideas floating in the ether, Amazon just managed to pack them into the perfect combo product and put a friendly name on its AI: Alexa.
Now Google wants to try.
Google has some obvious advantages, mostly because it’s Google: a company that has been indexing the web and everything you do on it for more than a decade. There’s no guarantee its new device will be a hit — anybody remember the Nexus Q? — but there are good reasons to think it can at least offer Amazon some real competition.
Let’s break it down.
Reasons Google’s totally going to eat Amazon’s lunch and Amazon should feel bad about it even maybe:
- Google Search is the gateway to most of the knowledge the web has to offer, and it’s teaching its new Assistant how to help people access it more responsively. Google Home can answer questions, but, more importantly, it can handle follow-up questions and keep track of context.
- You can control your Chromecast from Google Home.
- Music can play on multiple Google Home and Google Cast speakers in your house at once, if you’re rich and can afford a house with multiple rooms, or don’t mind the clutter of having multiple Google Homes in one room.
- Google Calendar and Gmail are central to the lives of people who use them, and Google Home will probably have a much easier time managing our to-do lists and emails than Alexa ever would. If Google ever picks a favorite messaging app for its human users, Home could probably work with that too.
- Amazon Echo is limited to the US and English. Home will presumably have none of those limitations, so now the rest of the world can know what it’s like to talk to their furniture.
- The Echo’s audio quality “sucks,” according to some, so that shouldn’t be hard to beat.
- Home is smaller than Echo and looks like a lot of different things.
Reasons this is probably a tie and maybe I’m presenting a false dilemma and I should feel bad for writing this “editorial”:
- Both of these things can tell you about the weather, set a timer, and play music, which probably covers most of the actual interactions humans crave with their speakers.
- It’s possible that Google Home doesn’t actually sound any better than the Echo, and I’m just being optimistic.
- Google ties Google Home to your Google account, which would be a theoretical advantage if you could switch between accounts. But you can’t, so that’s nothing to brag about right now.
- Home automation remains a tire fire. Amazon is doing it piecemeal, which means a lot of work and knowledge on the part of the user. Google promises to integrate with something, like maybe its Nest stuff, but doesn’t say when that will happen. I’m calling this a tie, but only because I’m really biased.
Reasons why Amazon rules this category and Google should step off and feel bad for being a copy-cat:
- API, API, API. Amazon has made Alexa (relatively) wide open to developers, which means it can do all sorts of things Amazon never planned for. It sucks you have to memorize all sorts of different commands (“skills”) to take advantage of these capabilities, but at least Alexa makes it possible. Google Home is API-less and alone.
- Even though it’s better not to personify and gender something that’s not human, it’s a lot easier to say “Alexa” than “OK Google” when using your lips and tongue.
- Do you like to buy things with your voice? Amazon’s good at selling things.
- It’s a little creepy to have Amazon potentially listening to you, but some people might think having Google potentially always listen to you is a lot more creepy.
- Lots of people have Amazon Prime, which comes with a free, albeit limited music streaming service. And the Echo supports Spotify; it’s not clear if Google Home does yet. Does Google really expect me to sign up for Google Play Music, or even understand what Google Play Music is, when I want to listen to a track?
If you’re asking me for my personal opinion, Amazon should be very worried. Google’s whole business model is being good at search. It’s pouring billions into getting better at it. Alexa is a nice party trick, and has provided much joy over the past year while sitting proud in a category of one, but can Amazon afford to compete with the cutting edge of natural language processing? The cutting edge of information storage and retrieval? The cutting edge of beating humans at Go? If Google Home can manage not to suck, not to glitch out, and not to be terrible at the basics, it has a much bigger upside in the long run by being part of the Google ecosystem.
Amazon did it first, sure. But will Google do it best?
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