On Wednesday, Google broadcast the day one keynote for its 10th annual I/O conference, with most of the announcements pertaining to products and services that won’t ship for many months. The biggest was for a product called Google Home, which brings its conversational digital personal assistant technologies to your home for the first time.
As you know, Microsoft’s entry in the personal digital assistant market is Cortana, and after a slow start on Windows phones, this technology is finally starting to reach more people thanks to its inclusion in Windows 10. But Cortana is only a small slice of the market, and brands like Apple Siri, Google Now (“OK, Google”), and Amazon Echo/Alexa are each trying to outdo each other.
Google’s offering here is the most powerful and useful, given its deep integration into Android, which Google describes (sans-proof) as “the most popular OS in the world,” and its deep search engine and machine learning expertise. Indeed, I’m increasingly positive that no company without a search engine will be a long-term player in this market, meaning that it comes down to Google—the presumed winner—and Microsoft.
But Google is finally expanding the power of Google Now beyond Android-based devices, thanks the surprising success of Amazon Echo, a device my wife and I recently deemed to be completely unnecessary. There are two main initiatives here.
The first and more nebulous offering is something called Google Assistant, meaning that Google is the only personal digital assistant maker that isn’t trying to personalize its digital assistant. (The other players have all given female names to these assistants: Microsoft has Cortana, Apple has Siri, and Amazon with Alexa.) And the point of Google Assistant is to make Google Search queries ambient—available everywhere—and interactive. That is, they will become conversations between you, the user, and some cloud-based AI.
“The assistant is an ongoing two-way dialogue between you and Google that understands your world and helps you get things done,” the search giant explains. “It makes it easy to buy movie tickets while on the go, to find that perfect restaurant for your family to grab a quick bite before the movie starts, and then help you navigate to the theater. It’s a Google for you, by you.”
Google Home, meanwhile, is the physical manifestation of Google Assistant, or at least it will be when it finally ships in late 2016. Looking like a small, cuter version of Amazon Echo—which of course i is—the Google Home device is yet another voice-activated speaker and front-end to cloud services. But of course this one is of particular interest because it’s made by Google, and powered by the cloud services that people actually use and want.
“Google Home lets you enjoy entertainment, manage everyday tasks, and get answers from Google—all using conversational speech,” the firm explains. “With a simple voice command, you can ask Google Home to play a song, set a timer for the oven, check your flight, or turn on your lights. It’s designed to fit your home with customizable bases in different colors and materials. Google Home will be released later this year.”
To demonstrate the potential power of this device, Google unfortunately jumped the shark: It showed a promotional Google Home video that demonstrated possible future capabilities. That is, it showed off features that will not debut when the device actually arrives later this year. So not only is Google Home coming somewhere down the line. But the BS you see in this video is a complete fabrication.
Also alarming: In a sadly typical example of how institutionally disconnected Google is from the outside world, this video depicts a family who largely ignores each other and is literally unaware of each others’ schedules while they interact almost exclusively with the Google Home device, and not with each other. It’s almost breathtaking to watch when you understand it in that context.
But the thing is, Google is going to get this right. If Amazon can see success with their limited speaker tube, Google is going to own it. And if you’re a fan of Microsoft and Cortana, your uncomfortable feet shuffling is understandable: Now we can just (not so) silently wonder why Microsoft is making something like this too.