First Click: Amazon Echo leaves the door open for Google Home

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Google is holding its big Pixel event today, and while most of the focus will be on the company’s new smartphones (comprehensively leaked though they may be), it’s Google Home — the company’s AI-powered Amazon Echo rival — that could be the most important piece of hardware on stage.

Google is playing catch up here, following in Amazon's footsteps after the company unveiled the Echo back in 2014. With the Echo, the retailer created a new home for AI digital assistants; those programs that are supposed to help manage your life by scheduling meetings, buying plane tickets, and so on. Google has been working on this sort of product for years, adding Google Now functionality to Android phones and tablets since 2012. But with the Echo, Amazon found a new way to package these voice-activated smarts (in Amazon's case in the form of its digital assistant Alexa). To date, the company has reportedly sold some 3.5 million Echo devices, and next year aims to some 10 million. Google is getting left behind.

Infiltrating our lives via the kitchen

Using the home as a staging post for digital assistants has been a canny move. It makes sense for a number of reasons — not just because talking to your computer is awkward in public (it completely is), but because your house is where you’re most likely to need a voice interface (e.g., while cooking, in the shower, lying on the couch while the phone is charging elsewhere). It's also a boon for families where every person doesn't have a smartphone, and if you don’t already own a Bluetooth speaker, then devices like the Echo kill two birds with one stone. You get something to play music on in your kitchen or living room, and the extra functions — answering questions, setting up timers, helping with your shopping — are an added bonus.

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo.

So how can Google beat Amazon here? After using the Echo pretty extensively since its UK launch, I’d say it can, but the company has to focus on two key areas: Google Home has to understand users better and it has to offer them more sophisticated help.

One of the most frustrating things I’ve found about the Echo is its limited understanding of language, especially with downloaded Skills (what Amazon calls Echo apps). When I downloaded a joke Skill, I found it couldn’t distinguish between the commands "tell me a joke" and "tell a joke." Just two letters’ difference and it wouldn’t work. This is a problem with third-party software, admittedly, but it’s bad that Amazon can’t share Echo’s language processing skills. When you’re using a device with a screen there are usually visual hints about how to work software, but with voice interfaces you have to rely on trial and error — and that’s really not good enough.

GOOGLE HAS THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CHOPS TO OUTPACE AMAZON

Google can probably do better. Amazon may have a 1,000-strong team working on the Echo with plans to hire hundreds more, but Google’s machine learning expertise is probably unrivaled in the industry. It’s been working on natural language processing far longer than Amazon, and one-fifth of US searches on Android are done using voice. And if my tests with Google Assistant in the Allo messaging app are anything to go by, the company is already better at parsing complicated queries than Alexa. (Although it has to be said there isn’t a massive difference; Google’s Assistant was just able to recognize more variants of question formats.)

Google Allo

Google's digital assistant in its Allo messaging app.

The second major problem is with the Echo’s limited functionality. The single best use case I’ve found for Alexa is using it to listen to music, podcasts, and the news. When I’m making coffee in the morning or cooking or cleaning, it’s fantastic to have a hands-free way of accessing this stuff, but I wouldn’t say this is worth the $179 asking price alone. (If you already have a Bluetooth speaker then there’s even less incentive.) You can ask Alexa a lot of basic queries, but you soon run into walls. Questions like "when does the Tesco near me close?" are met with bafflement, and some obvious functions — like a solid reminder system — aren't all there. In the UK, too, the Echo launched without support for If This Then That, meaning unless there's direct support, you can't use Alexa to automate tasks with smart home devices.

Google is plugged into our digital lives in a way Amazon just isn't

Here as well, Google has the chance to pull ahead. It has greater access to users’ digital lives, including not only their calendars and emails, but also travel habits, browser history, and the like. This is data that most of us are wary about handing over to tech companies, but without it, digital assistants are going to be limited in how they can help, and it’s the sort of information Amazon just doesn’t have.

Google can also plug Home into an ecosystem of its own devices including the rumored Google Wifi router and the existing lineup of Works with Nest products. And with the Play Store and its Android expertise the company can tap a pool of developers to add support for Home apps. (Amazon may boast more than 3,000 Echo skills, but the majority are garbage.)

Google also has a secret weapon — the Chromecast. The company’s Cast software will integrate with Home, allowing you to control your TV with it. Finding YouTube videos is one functionality we know will be available, and it makes sense that others will follow (searching Netflix, for example). It’s also possible the company could create Chromecast hardware that mirrors the functionality of Amazon’s Echo Dot — adding voice support to existing speakers.

Add all these factors together, and Google’s Home hub could overcome Amazon Echo’s significant head start and — more importantly — give it a jump on the future.


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