Google’s had a busy day. It unveiled two smartphones, launched a connected speaker, introduced a VR headset, announced a fancy router, and debut a new Chromecast all in one fast-moving hour-and-a-half event.
But throughout all of those flashy hardware announcements were details about a software feature that Google seems to think will ultimately be more important: the Google Assistant.
The Google Assistant is, at its core, just a new way to make Google searches, but in a conversation with an AI that knows a lot about you. It's sort of like a mashup of Siri and a chatbot: you can ask it questions aloud or by typing, and it'll try to pull in whatever you're looking for, be it the solution to a math problem, directions to a store, or instructions on getting something done.
It’s also a little bit more than that — the Google Assistant is supposed to be an assistant, after all. So in some cases, it can figure out what song you’re looking for, present your schedule for the day, and make restaurant reservations for you.
But nailing down exactly what the Google Assistant is capable of can be strangely difficult right now. That's because Google currently has three different ways to use the Google Assistant. Google says it’s the same Assistant in each place, but it can (and can’t) do different things depending on where you use it.
- Google Assistant on Google Home (the new speaker)
- Google Assistant on Pixel (the new phones)
- Google Assistant on Allo (the new-ish chat app)
Google Assistant has the same goal in each location — get you information and perform basic tasks. But it accomplishes that goal in different ways. And in some limited instances, can only accomplish certain tasks on certain devices.
Here's the breakdown of how the Assistant works on each device, based on what we know so far:
- Assistant on Home: This is basically Google's twist on what Amazon is doing with Alexa. You ask questions aloud, and the Assistant reads answers back through the speaker. It can also set alarms, play music, and pull up videos on your TV. Notably, this is the only version of the Google Assistant capable of controlling smart home gadgets, like Nest devices and Philips Hue lights. It’s also the one place Assistant can present your daily schedule.
- Assistant on Pixel: This is just like Siri. You hold the home button, and the Assistant will pop up waiting to be asked a question. For whatever reason, you can't type in your questions — you have to ask them aloud, and answers will be read back to you. This version of the Assistant has some amount of control over the phone, so you can use it to set reminders, play YouTube videos, and send messages. It can also look up information that's currently being displayed on the phone's screen, essentially replacing Now on Tap.
- Assistant on Allo: This is kind of like Google as a chatbot. In fact, the Assistant is a chatbot inside of Allo (which itself is a chat app). You type in questions, and it'll fetch answers and drop them back into your chat screen. But you can't ask questions aloud, and you can't control the phone this way.
Google is almost certainly going to combine the different forms of its Assistant eventually so that they're all more-or-less equal in terms of features (save for, you know, stuff like screen search on a speaker). But for now, it’ll be occasionally limiting of what you can do.
And if you’re wondering how Google Now factors into all of this, well, join the club. Google says some of the stuff in Now that makes sense to be in an assistant will migrate over there — but how and when that will happen is anyone’s guess.
These inconsistencies may be part of why Google is keeping Assistant exclusive to just a few of its own products for the time being. It's a core feature of those products, but it's still in early stages, with mixed up features and ways to use it.
So far in what we’ve tried, that confusion isn’t really a big deal. You ask Google a question, it usually manages to answer it, and you move on. It’s only at the edge cases where things can break down a bit, and overall we get the sense that the Google Assistant will be smarter and more flexible than the competition.
Already, Google is talking about the big plans it has to expand Assistant, by allowing other companies to integrate their own services. It’s currently working with Uber, Spotify, Samsung’s SmartThings, and CNN, among many others, and Google says it’ll open up Assistant to everyone later this year.
Then, next year, Google plans to allow other companies to begin putting its Assistant into their own hardware products. It’s an odd thing to hold off on — it’s a software feature, after all — but it suggests that the Assistant is meant to become ubiquitous across Android phones and likely anything else that Google touches. By the time that happens, it ought to be capable of doing quite a bit more.