For more than a year now, there has been a popular tech gadget that is the only one of its kind on the market. The Amazon Echo, a “smart speaker” that you control by voice, was the company’s end run around the smartphone industry, which it failed to break into with the Fire Phone. Widely viewed as quixotic upon release, the Echo gradually won over many of its critics, and a surprising number of consumers, with its dead-simple interface and just enough practical use cases to insinuate itself into one’s daily routines. It was only a matter of time before one of the other big companies copied it. And now Google has.
At its annual developer conference Wednesday, the company announced Google Home, a “smart speaker” that—well, I probably don’t need to repeat it. It does basically the same stuff the Echo does, plus or minus a few features. It’s also very similar in design, if perhaps a little friendlier-looking. It bears some resemblance to an air freshener, or perhaps a modernist salt shaker.
Usually when big tech companies copy each other’s ideas, they put up some pretense of originality. Google, to its credit, barely bothered to pass off Home as its own innovation. In fact, in a moment of honesty and magnanimity that is nearly unheard of in the world of tech product launches, Google CEO Sundar Pichai explicitly cited the Echo’s success, saying, “Credit to the team at Amazon for creating a lot of excitement in this space.”
I can think of a reason, beyond politeness or human decency, why Pichai might feel comfortable offering this sort of credit to a rival product before extolling the virtues of his own. It’s that he’s supremely confident that Google can beat Amazon at its own game.
Yes, Amazon has a head start in the “smart speaker” space, and the Echo offers more integrations with services like Spotify and Domino’s and 1-800-Flowers than the Google Home will at launch.
But what Google knows is that “speaker” isn’t the operative word here, and the Echo isn’t the real product. The operative word is “smart,” and the real product is the voice-control virtual-assistant software that animates the speaker. In Amazon’s case, that’s Alexa. In Google’s case, it’s the newly rebranded “Google assistant,” which builds on the company’s already successful Google Now software.
Viewed through this lens, it’s actually Google that’s the incumbent here, with years and years of experience developing industry-leading voice recognition, natural language understanding, and conversational search technology. What Amazon found with the Echo was really just a fresh use case for the type of software that Google has been building all along.
As a result, Google Home will enjoy two big advantages over the Echo right from the beginning. First, the virtual assistant that lives inside it (or, more precisely, that resides in Google’s server cloud), will be essentially the same one that already lives inside some 1.5 billion people’s Android devices. As a result, it will connect directly and seamlessly to the many Google services that people know and use, like Google Maps, Gmail, and Google calendar.
Second, Google assistant is likely to be far more intelligent than Alexa, in the sense that it will be better at both understanding your queries and answering them. Ask Alexa a question about the world, and it will recite an answer straight from Wikipedia, one of a very limited number of information sources to which it has access. Ask Google assistant a question about the world, and it will tap into all of the knowledge and power of Google search. Not only that, but it will draw on Google’s state-of-the-art “conversational search” technology, which intuits not only the denotative meaning of a given query, but some of the conversational context that surrounds it.
So, as Pichai demonstrated, Google assistant will not only answer the question, “What is Draymond Green’s jersey number?”, but if you then ask it, “Where did he go to college?”, it will recognize that “he” refers to Green and will answer that question too. Alexa simply can’t do that yet. Which is why Pichai was not exaggerating when he bragged that Google assistant will boast capabilities “far beyond what other assistants can do.”
Like the Echo, the Home will also serve as a remote control for various household devices: “Turn the lights on in Kevin’s room” was Pichai’s example. Here, too, Google enjoys an incumbent advantage, thanks to its 2014 acquisition of the smart thermostat company Nest.
All of which might make the Google Home sound far more appealing than the Echo. But don’t forget that virtually everything Google does has a shadow purpose that it doesn’t talk much about, which is to collect data on users’ behavior and harness it to build a hyper-detailed profile of their likes, dislikes, buying habits, and nonbuying habits.
People have given the Echo somewhat of a pass in the privacy department, despite its radically intrusive potential as a surveillance device. (It listens to literally everything you say in your own home.) That may be because Amazon has relatively limited access to the rest of our private information. Not so for Google, which will now be as privy to everything we say and do offline as it is to our online behavior. To the extent that Google assistant is smarter than Alexa, it’s also likely to be that much creepier.