Amazon did an amazing thing when it accidentally-on-purpose figured out that people wanted purpose-built personal assistant devices in their homes. Its $179 Echo device, complete with its Alexa brain, has sold millions of units, and people are definitely crazy about them. But I’ve just spent a week living with the $129 Google Home assistant, and I believe Google will use its platform power to eventually steal the Echo’s glory.
I’ve been using the Echo for eight months, and I’m a fan. As I settled in with it, I found that I mainly used it to read the news out loud, answer random questions like word definitions, wake me up in the morning, and to control a couple of lights.
But after using the Google Home and Echo side by side, I can see some basic differences in approach. Google Home’s female voice has a number of human-sounding answers to the same question. When I ask it to set an alarm, it might say “you got it” one day and “consider it done” the next. Music sounds better on the Home—its speaker is louder and truer to the sound of the music than the one in the Echo.
Both devices seem to hear and understand my speech reasonably well. Echo contains a seven-microphone array around its top to hear voices clearly, while Home contains only two microphones. Google says it uses some fancy cloud-based algorithms to understand trigger words, and the directions from which they’re coming in the room.
I used two Alexa devices in my home for a few months, and the Echo in the other room often answered when I was talking to the Alexa device right in front of me in the kitchen. Google has worked out that problem with software to make sure only the Home device closest to the source of the trigger words responds.
Google Home has an advantage over Echo in that it can work with Chromecast to order up movies (or music) to be played on the TV set in the living room or bedroom. You can also play music simultaneously across several Home devices in different rooms; Echo can’t do that yet.
Google Home brings Google’s search prowess to bear when I ask it questions that don’t contain all the key facts, like “Play that one song from Titanic.” (Spoiler alert: It plays the Celine Dion song “My Heart Will Go On,” which was featured in the movie.)
Still, it’s not perfect. When you ask it to “play that Celine Dion song on the Titanic soundtrack,” it’s stumped. When you ask “What’s the name of the second song on Dark Side of The Moon, it’s stumped. When you ask it to “play that one song from Dark Side of the Moon” it says “here’s ‘Any Color You Like’,” and then plays “Breathe.” Amazon Echo can play songs (via Amazon Music) when you know the name and artist, but nothing fancier than that, and frankly it sometimes plays crappy-sounding live versions of songs, which is annoying.
I’ve seen Echo choke on word definition requests, while I’ve yet to stump Google Home. Home uses search to find pretty much any word or concept uttered by human beings. It can also crawl to the ends of the web for things like recipes, how-to advice, geography questions, historical facts, etc. It’s the perfect device for settling factual disputes over the dinner table.
One shortcoming of Home is its ability to connect with only one person’s Google account at a time. Meanwhile the Echo can be connected with multiple accounts. The users switch between accounts using a trigger phrase.
The strongest feature in Google Home is something called “My Day,” which amounts to a sort of showcase for all the Google services the device can call on. After Home hears the trigger words “Hey Google, what’s my day look like?” it bids you good morning, gives you the weather outside, reviews your agenda for the day based on your calendar entries, reminds you of to-dos, gives you your commute time to work, and then gives you a selection of news that you pre-select. (For me that’s the NPR hourly news summary, some tech news highlights, and that’s it.) The whole thing lasts about five minutes.
And that’s one of the key jobs of a personal assistant! To orient the user to what’s going on right now, what the conditions are, and what needs to be done. This is Google putting information in my brain that wouldn’t normally be there. I’ve been getting such a briefing from Google Home for about a week now, and I find it to be a wonderfully orienting experience (especially when paired with that first glorious cup of coffee). I tend to leave the house feeling a little more in balance and in control when I know exactly what’s coming.
Echo offers a feature called “Flash News,” which is nice, but it’s a customizable collection of news and weather, not the well-rounded briefing My Day offers.
Flash News and My Day provide a telling view into the larger platform wars being waged by big tech companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. The companies making these home assistant devices are big platforms that truly want to provide the operating system for your everyday life. They’re all trying to anticipate the times and places you need assistance during the day, to make sure they are present on the right screen offering the right kind of information.
The home personal assistant is just the latest and hottest front in this battle. In a platform war, the combatants try to leverage as many relevant parts of their ecosystem as possible at a particular end point. If Platform A can do something a user really needs in a given setting on a given device, and that service is integrated with the rest of the platforms services, the user might be tempted to standardize on that platform.
I felt that pull a few nights ago when playing around with Google Home. Like many people, I use a careful mix of Apple and Google apps. I had been using Apple’s Calendar (mainly to understand how the service integrates with Apple devices and other Apple apps), but decided to switch back to Google’s calendar so that Google Assistant would have more data to work with for my My Day briefing.
In the end, the usefulness of these home assistant devices, and your likelihood of buying one, will depend on the platform powers they can draw upon. And that’s why I still believe that for most people, Google Home will win.
Google’s unique platform powers include search, Gmail, the Google Docs suite, Maps, and lots of other smaller services. Those are all brought to bear in My Day.
Amazon’s unique platform power is a vast online marketplace with a ton of buyer purchasing, intent, and suggestion engine data behind it. And Amazon is wisely working hard with third parties to add more meaningful skills to Alexa (there are 4,000 of them now).
But many of those skills aren’t likely to remain exclusive to one brand of home assistant. A year down the line, Google will have extended its own Home API to developers, and I predict that Google will soon close the third-party “skills gap” with Amazon. Further, I expect that Google will leverage its AI and natural language chops to let users call up those skills in a more natural way.