We’ll ask each of their voice-powered assistant services a series of questions. Give them a series of tasks to do. They’ll read recipes, give traffic reports, talk about the weather, answer trivia questions. They’ll control lights and door locks. They’ll play music. They’ll call Uber.
And Google will win.
Or at least that's my best guess after seeing Home's unveiling at Google's I/O conference keynote on Tuesday. I drank the Kool-Aid on Alexa, and I still love her, but I think Google can bring a powerful set of data tools to the home assistant category that it's going to be hard for Amazon to match.
A really good home assistant has to hear me well, has to learn about me and understand me, has to be smart and well sourced, and has to have good connections. Like a good concierge.
I think Google will win on a few of those counts.
Google Home, I’m betting, is smarter than Echo. Google has been using its deep search experience—the social graph that contains all the data Google bots have scraped on the web—as a secret sauce in its products. Home is no different. In Google Home’s "question answerer" mode it will have a vast pool of information (the Knowledge Graph, as Googlers call it) to search through for the right answers. The more random the question, the more Google Home will outperform Alexa (Echo’s brain). It'll use AI to predict what I might be searching for, for example.
In a sense, Google is going to simply take the personal assistant magic in its Google Now app and dump it in a free-standing home speaker. Google Now is surprisingly capable at gathering and analyzing your data—driving directions, maps, calendars, flight schedules, and more—and then giving it back to you in forms that benefit you. It tells you when you need to leave for the airport to catch your flight, factoring in traffic, weather, and flight delays. Google is going to be better than Amazon at that kind of awareness—in part because more of my personal data, for better or worse, flows through Google. And Google has proven to be clever and thoughtful about how it analyzes the data and feeds it back to the user.
Factoid: Google Now launched July 9, 2012. Amazon Echo launched November 6, 2014.
Google’s other key advantage here is that it happens to own a ubiquitous mobile OS in Android. And 1.4 billion people use Android devices every month.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said repeatedly that he wants his technology to be contextually aware of a user’s environment. It’s likely that many Google Home users will own an Android phone, a sensor-laden gizmo that gathers just that kind of information. Whether you use Google Now or not, the information an Android phone collects about you (location, activity, time, identity, etc.) can be leveraged by Google Home. Much to its chagrin, Amazon has no such sensor-rich personal device to contribute to Alexa's intelligence. Amazon may know more about a user’s shopping habits than Google, but shopping isn't life.
Google has more experience—and broader experience—than Amazon in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The company been using machine learning and AI in search algorithms for years. Amazon almost certainly uses some form of machine learning in the search and suggestion engine at its retail mega-market, but Google is deeper into the science and its applications.
When I said "must have good connections" above, I meant that a home assistant must be able to link out to an ecosystem of connected home devices such as lights, door locks, and security sensors. Amazon is off to a great start on this front. It already has a large number of partner companies whose products can be controlled via the Alexa voice platform. These include thermostats made by Nest, which was acquired by Google in 2014. And we’re now seeing the first third-party devices that can run the Alexa voice-powered assistant, like the Triby kitchen speaker.
But here too Google has invested a lot of research and development time, at least indirectly. Nest has its own developer platform called "Works with Nest." The platform is meant to make it easy to home device makers to connect to Nest products via a protocol the company developed called Weave. The list of products now connected to the platform has grown rather long and includes everything from smoke alarms to smartwatches to cars.
Google, for its part, developed an operating system for the Internet of things called Brillo. But how Google’s and Nest’s individual efforts fit together is still a little mysterious. Nest’s platform may or may not integrate with Brillo. Google said that Nest products can connect with Google Home, but we don’t know if Google Home can connect with all the devices in the "Works with Nest" program.
At any rate, Google has long been working on its vision for the connected home, even if it seems a little confused at the moment.
And Google seems to have worked out one technical challenge that Amazon hasn’t been able to crack. Right now, you can’t tell Echo to play music in one room but not another. Google says users can tell the Home device to turn on music in specific rooms. It may also be easier to connect Google Home with external audio equipment, using Chromecast.
Google Home is due out next fall. For all I know Google may still be working on some of the challenges mentioned above. Meanwhile, the Echo has been out in the marketplace for a (relatively) long time, and will presumably get a richer, more powerful version of Alexa itself in the months to come..
So my praise for Google Home is provisional. We’ll have to see it in action to really know if all its advantages on paper translate into an amazing user experience.