Google would like to remind you that you can talk with it.
Today Google is announcing a "Google Assistant" that essentially performs the same tasks as other Google interfaces do, but in a conversational mode. It doesn't have a name, it just has the power of Google and its deep mine of data behind it.
In the past few years, we've seen every other big tech company launch a personal assistant: Apple's Siri. Amazon's Alexa. Microsoft's Cortana. Facebook's M. All are already iconic assistants with distinct personalities — or at least with the distinct sense that they have personalities. That's mainly because each has a name and a personified intelligence that you imagine you relate to. To be blunt, none of them are quite as capable as Google, but each of them feel like a thing that you can talk to — and a thing that talks back.
Then there's Google. Or perhaps Google Now? You don't ask anthropomorphic intelligence, you ask the imposing monolith that is Google. The cute colors on its icon might help soften that feeling, but when you think of Google, what do you think of?
Growing beyond the white box
You think of search, of course — the blank white box where you type in queries and get a list of responses. "That search box is so iconic," says Scott Huffman, vice president of engineering for search. "It's such a strong thing in people's minds. It's associated with 'I express my need in a really simple way and I get back public information.'" But, Huffman says, "it's been a bit of a leap for our users ... to now think of that box as a place where I can also call grandma."
That Google box (and voice-assisted search on Google devices and Google apps) has been able to call Grandma all along — just not in the same "conversational" interface you see with chatbots.
Google's assistant is starting small
The assistant is coming in two "expressions," as Google calls them: a new chat app called Allo and an audio-only, Amazon Echo-like speaker called "Google Home." Inside each app, Google Assistant has been customized for the platform it's on. In a chat app, you want a bot that gives simple answers and big, easily tappable links. In a voice-based interface, you want your assistant to be short and to the point — and also do a good job connecting to the other things in your home.
Although I didn't get to see Home, I did see a long demo of the Google assistant in Allo — and it was impressive. Google's assistant is able to understand multiple kinds of contexts — it can figure out what you're asking for and give you suggestions, and even take actions on your behalf with other apps like OpenTable. Search "Italian restaurants" and it will find some options, then suggest a time for a reservation. Of if you query "Steph Curry's jersey number," it will give you what you're looking for — along with other details about Curry's team, the Golden State Warriors.
I will admit that I find Google's resistance to giving its assistant a name is starting to feel weird. About the only good thing about it is that it mostly avoids the icky implications of a female-gendered servant. Four years ago, Huffman said that Google has "shied away from the idea of kind of a human persona for search."
"We think of this as Google."
Today, that same reticence is still obvious when you talk to Google about its assistant capabilities. "Whether we have a name or not, we think of this as Google," says Huffman. "We think of this as really a continuation of what Google has been doing for years and years." That's certainly true — and again, all indications point to Google's assistant being at least as competent as anything else that's out there — but it's doing so under the same name that sells DoubleClick ads and makes Android and productivity software. People talk about Siri and Alexa like a person in their life. Google? Not so much.
It doesn't help that Google's voice search / assistant capabilities are spread out amongst a pretty wide and disparate array of apps, services, and devices. There's the basic Google search box, there's talking to your watch, to Android, to the Google app in iOS. There's Now on Tap. Some of these things connect to and communicate with your Gmail or your Calendar. But the interrelation of these apps is confusing. If you ask Google to set a reminder for you, it could show up in Now or Inbox or perhaps in Calendar — or maybe all three.
It's confusing, and today's announcement only seems to layer on more confusion. It feels like we're overdue for Google to just "unite the clans" and give us a singular vision of the next phase of Google search, unified across the many things it does. That vision, as near as I can tell, is to just accept that "Google" is behind everything smart your devices might do.
And again, Google is very good at making computers do very smart things. The Google assistant demonstrations I saw were compelling, even if they didn't go beyond what I've seen Google do before taking place in a new, conversational interface. That interface is great, but I don't know yet if it's great enough to serve as the foundation for the next stage in Google's evolution.
In fact, during our talk I suggested that Google was being overly cautious, spending more time than necessary testing the waters and seeing what sticks. "It's not a matter of being cautious," says Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management. "It's a matter of taking it one step at a time. This is not a thing that's going to figure itself out in 2016. It's going to be a long journey."
"It's a matter of taking it one step at a time."
But while Google embarks on that journey, other companies are plowing full speed ahead into the (admittedly messy) world of chatbots. You can talk to all sorts of bots in Facebook Messenger already. And at Build this year, Microsoft laid out a vision of Cortana and a chatbot platform that developers can work with. Sure, there are plenty of apps that tie into Google's voice search capabilities, but those are more a matter of partnerships than open platforms.
Google stands by this approach, though. Queiroz says he doesn't want to just throw "a bunch of stuff out there and things that may not work that well may not be very useful to consumers if they can't remember how to talk to Joe's Pizza Shop." It's a not-too-subtle dig at Alexa, whose burgeoning set of "skills" has captivated the internet but still require remembering specific keywords to activate them. Huffman says that above all else, he wants to ensure this assist doesn't require "a very stilted, weird, magic-word type experience."
Google would rather lean on its natural language capabilities (which are very good) and serve as the abstraction layer between what you're asking and what services you need. That's not too far from Satya Nadella's vision for Microsoft's services — but nevertheless Google seems to be taking this a bit more slowly.
Google's ability to understand natural language is second to none
"The assistant as the centerpiece," says Huffman. "There's an assistant that has the most powerful natural language and dialog capabilities, understands the other agents in the ecosystem, and can integrate with them and call on them as needed." When it comes to connecting that ideal up with the growing set of developers hungry to get their chatbots exposed to the world, Huffman says that Google is "trying to take our time and be pretty thoughtful ... [about] that developer platform or that developer experience."
Perhaps it's just weird to see Google being cautious at all. After all, this is Google I/O, the conference where we watched one of its founders choreograph a skydiving and stunt bicycle extravaganza. Perhaps a little caution is even called for — Siri's early years were pretty fraught, and even Google Now feels a bit like a forgotten remnant of the search experience. Queiroz and Huffman aren't wrong that Alexa can be weird and vexing sometimes, too.
Even when Alexa is vexing, you can forgive it
But the thing about Alexa is that even when it's weird and vexing, you can forgive it. It's not Amazon that doesn't understand you, it's just Alexa. That small distance gives these companies making personal assistants permission to experiment a bit more. Siri, after all, was in "beta" for two years.
Name or no, Google is sticking to its careful plan. And there are hints that the clearer, more unified vision of the future of a conversational interface with computers is going to spread beyond Allo and Google Home. Queiroz says that the plan is for the Google Assistant to eventually be everywhere. "Our goal is for the assistant to be available throughout the day, whatever you're doing. It's on your watch, it's on your phone, it's on your chat."
It all sounds really great. But Google is not delivering that vision today — in fact, it's not delivering anything at all yet. The Allo app and the Google Home speaker won't arrive until later this year.