Google Home Has One Obvious and Fatal Flaw

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Hardware with 70 Comments

Google Home Has One Obvious and Fatal Flaw

Last night, I received a shipping notification: The Google Home I ordered is heading my way. But in looking at the first reviews of the device, I can see that this it has one fatal flaw. And it’s a big one.

I don’t usually look at other reviews before I review a product myself. But in this case, I feel a bit out of my depth: My wife and I tried Amazon’s Echo earlier this year, but after just two weeks of use, we decided to return it. It just wasn’t essential. Likewise, my experience with personal digital assistants—Cortana on Windows, Apple’s Siri, and Google Now on Android—has been lackluster too. I just don’t see the day-to-day benefits of this kind of interface.

I’m not a complete Luddite, of course. And I spend much of my time proselytizing the benefits of change while trying to live up to that ideal myself. That old saying is absolutely true sometimes: It’s easier to give advice than it is to take it yourself. So I keep trying.

But Google Home is coming. And in a day or two, my wife and I will once again be confronted by a little alien device in our home, one we can talk to, ask questions of, and direct in various ways.

I casually mentioned the Home’s impending arrival to my wife last night while watching what ended up being a marathon 10-inning Game 7 finale to the World Series. My wife’s take was that it had to be better than the Echo because Google was better at this sort of thing. And I added that a further benefit would be that Google-based queries could extend past this one device; unlike with Echo, we all use Google away from home too, on smartphones and tablets.

But I was troubled by our earlier experiences with Echo. By my wife coldly declaring that “we should just return it” when I asked how it was going. I needed to know what to expect.

So when I sat down bleary-eyed in front of the PC this morning and saw that the earlier reviews were in, I did something I never do.

I read them.

And I read them with intent, not to get a general feeling for the device, but rather to see whether there wasn’t one issue that many reviewers noted, one fatal flaw. And sadly, there is.

Despite being marketed as a device you can use throughout your home—Google envisions a future in which homes have two or three of these things, working in concert—Google Home has no conception at all of multiple users. That is, you must configure it with some Google account. And if it’s your account, that means that your wife, your kids, or anyone else who happens to be within earshot of the thing can run queries. Against your account.

I realize this isn’t unique to Google Home. But we all share a central Amazon account because that’s how a home works. My Google account is … mine. It’s private. As is my wife’s. And my childrens’.

Hm.

As Popular Mechanics’s Eric Limer writes, this limitation is a real negative.

When my wife asks the Home what’s going on today, she’ll hear about my meetings, and the estimated time of my commute. Reminders she sets will go to my calendar, despite our separate Google accounts and extremely different and easily distinguishable voices. For me, the Home is my personal assistant. For her, well, it is still my personal assistant.

This deficiency might be easier to overlook if it didn’t fly in the face of Google’s pitch so directly. The Home is a centerpiece, and clearly meant to be a communal device with options to dig deeper into personal information. To have that second feature only available for a single user feels like a significant cheapening of the dream, a cheapening that feels all the worse the more people are involved.

Computerworld’s JR Raphael offers a similar view.

Google Home has a glaring flaw … everything that happens through that device will be tied to your Google account — no matter who’s doing the talking. And when you think about that in practical terms, there are plenty of situations in which it could be less than ideal.

I dug around and found a new Google help document that uncategorically confirms Home’s single account nature. [It says] “Today, Google Home only supports a single account on the device — but you can use multiple accounts with your music services.” So there is that one exception

You get the idea.

If it helps, Google has confirmed that the single account nature of Google Home is—wait for it—a “known issue.” This suggests that they will fix this problem. But … when? And I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be returning this thing even more quickly than I did with the Echo. Dammit.

 

Tagged with , ,

Premium Comments (29) Comments (41)
Elevate the Conversation!

Join Thurrott Premium to enjoy our Premium comments.

Premium member comments on news posts will feature an elevated status that increases their visibility. This tab would allow you to participate in Premium comments with other premium members. Register to join the other Premium members in elevating the conversation!

Register or Subscribe
29 Comments
Sort by Votes | Date
  1. 4 | Reply
    gregsedwards Alpha Member #1910 - 4 weeks ago

    Excellent point, Paul. And one I hadn't really considered up until now. I mean, I've seen the Amazon Echo demos and videos, so I know you just sort of ask Alexa about things and she answers them, but I hadn't really considered the plumbing of how that works with multiple users. Maybe it's better than Google Home, but something tells me it's probably not.

    It seems like these devices have been designed for a scenario where someone either lives alone, or the entire household just shares an account. And that's something I've been preaching against for years with my family's PCs. Much to my wife and kids' chagrin, I ended up changing my password/PIN to force them to use their own accounts. And part of it is just getting them in the habit of "this is your space, this is mine." But it's also about cultivating a more personal relationship with technology. I want them to be able to personalize and organize their stuff as they see fit, to have their own games, media, playlists, calendars, files, searches, reminders, etc. Within parental limits, of course. And if they're using their own logins, then my wife and I know who's doing what.

    This has been one of my big frustrations with iPads in the past. There's no concept of multiple individuals sharing a device. You know that's part of Apple's strategy to get you to buy one for each user, but it just feels unnecessary and artificially imposed. I'm not as familiar with Apple TV, but I gather it does kind of awkwardly support multiple accounts. It's disappointing and kind of creepy to know that muddled mess of "everyone is the same user" is now coming to Google Home.

    As frustrated as I've been by some elements of Xbox (specifically, sharing content licenses with my family), I kind of like its approach to multiple users. Kinect learned me, my wife, and each of my kids during setup, and we each have a PIN. Each family member who steps in front of the Kinect or grabs a controller is logged into the device simultaneously, and Xbox kind of manages our collective permissions when/wherever it's applicable. So if I happen to launch DOOM while kids are in the room, then Xbox politely says, "yeah, so your 6-year-old son is in the room, and this FPS where you're a space marine stuck in hell shooting demons with a sawed-off shotgun is a few notches above his parental content control setting." Sure, it can be frustrating when Xbox doesn't log my kids out after they've obviously left the room (I'm looking at you, Kinect), but it's a more sensible strategy than just assuming you're always alone.

    Of course, this requires a bit of forethought and setup, which seems at direct odds with the whole "plug it in and use it" strategy. Maybe there needs to be a concept of a family group of accounts that automatically get added along with the primary account. Microsoft accounts already have the infrastructure to do that, thanks to their Family Safety service. But the hardware also has to distinguish who's interacting with it, who's in the room, and what's appropriate during each and every interaction. That's a much trickier proposition without a camera. Are you going to have each person say their name when they come into the room? Wear some kind of smart pin? Use echo-location? No, probably just use a shared account. Welcome to 1995.

    Maybe when/if Microsoft tackles this space, they can leverage Kinect and Xbox somehow. I have multiple, Kinect-equipped Xbox consoles in my living room and upstairs bonus room. All I really need is a much better version of Cortana that can actually use that hardware and provide a purely voice-based interaction experience.

  2. 2 | Reply
    Siv Alpha Member #451 - 4 weeks ago

    You would have thought you could voice train it after adding each Google account of the users who will use it and then it knows just by the voice who's account it should be dealing with. Perhaps accompanied by a different colour glow so you are confident it has your account not someone else's.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 4 weeks ago
      In reply to Siv:

      I'm sure they've thought of that.  Like all things technical though, better stuff comes later as it's well developed.

  3. 2 | Reply
    gardner Alpha Member #96 - 4 weeks ago

    My decision to cancel mine before it shipped is looking better.

    Ill look at it when it can do 2 accounts.

  4. 1 | Reply
    Johnnymarauder Alpha Member #1647 - 4 weeks ago

    This reminds me of the Late Show with Steven Colbert where he was making a joke of talking to all the Amazon Echos that were in earshot of the TV while he spoke.  Hope they all didn't order something that night!

     

  5. 0 | Reply
    chrisrut Alpha Member #193 - 4 weeks ago

    Better then, that such devices feature a Windows Hello-like ability to recognize users by voice, camera, etc. etc. Perhaps even to participate in a multi-party environment - recognizing each...As sci-fi goes that's not very far-fetched.

  6. 0 | Reply
    Narg Alpha Member #420 - 4 weeks ago

    I too have seen the multi-user problem with our Amazon Echo.  But most of things we use that assistant for is not account specific, and we share a lot of the data that comes from it through Amazon's "Family" account setup, so it works out nicely.  We've thought about getting one of the Echo Dots for use only on her account.  They'd have to reside in different rooms though.  I'm sure this is a "gen 1" problem, and will be resolved in time as voice recognition gets better.  Many devices with voice recognition will already recognize one voice from another, so it's just a matter of time.

  7. 0 | Reply
    bbold Alpha Member #669 - 4 weeks ago

    Hopefully this will be a "lesson learned" if and when Microsoft intends to ship a similar Cortana device. You don't necessarily want your friends and even family to order products through your account or even mess with your settings and files. I agree with below poster.. voice training is the way to go, otherwise, its as if you just left your computer out for anyone to use.

  8. 0 | Reply
    bbold Alpha Member #669 - 4 weeks ago

    Hopefully this will be a lesson learned if Microsoft ever intends to ship a similar device. You don't want any friends or even family ordering items through your account or messing around with your stuff.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 4 weeks ago
      In reply to bbold:

      The Xbox One can already identify who's talking in certain situations...

  9. 0 | Reply
    gsmith-plm Alpha Member #1599 - 4 weeks ago

    All the AI's - whether on a phone, a computer, or a little gizmo on the table - suffer from the same problem.  They are all little more than StarTrek wanna-be's.  They have limited abilities, cannot recognize different voices, and have problems with some words (try getting an Echo to play a radio station using call letters unless you spell them out slowly like you would to a 3 yr old). 

    Actually, that last bit is the real key - these products are the electronic equal of a 3 yr old.  The big difference is that a 3 yr old can learn new stuff pretty fast while these AI's are locked into their limited programming.  ITTT can eventually open them up quite a bit but right now that interface is sadly lacking in real capability.

    The main purpose of the Echo, and possibly other things, is to sell hardware and services.  The Echo may let you use Pandora and iHearRadio, but it really want's you to subscribe to the Amazon Music Service and, for now, that's the only service you can use to find and play a specific song.  There is also a lot of home connected hardware you can buy to make your life a tiny bit more like the Enterprise, but not really.

    These devices can be used to look things up - provided you don't have a radio or the TV playing because then they can't hear you very well.  I've heard some people find them handy for the kitchen, but I'd have to think about that given their price.  What my Echo Dot IS good for is the bedroom.  It can set an alarm, read me a news/weather brief, play a news radio station, play one of my Pandora stations or an Audible book or white noise and automatically stop after a pre-set period of time.  But what it can't do is string two or more things into a single command (which is where ITTT needs to go).

    But StarTrek it ain't.  It can't even open a door for cripes sake.

    P.S. If you play a video that has instructions on how to do things with an Echo, be darn sure to turn it's mike off first - unless you DO want to book tickets to Outer Mongolia.

  10. 0 | Reply
    RonV42 Alpha Member #166 - 3 weeks ago

    This is a major issue with any of these assistants that are always listing to what you say or what you do.  Look at SmartTV's they have the same issue, pinned to one account.  The only device that seems to understand that there are different members of my family is Xbox.  Depending who is current active on the dashboard gets their context, accounts etc.

  11. 0 | Reply
    jecouch66 Alpha Member #487 - 4 weeks ago

    I'm with you on questiong the need for these things.  I love tech and devices and generally will buy anything just to try it out.  But I don't have or want one of these type devices.  

    I just don't get the desire to talk to machines.  I always feel like an idiot trying to get my Kinect to pause or do something.  No matter how many times I tune the thing, I still have to practically yell to get it to understand me.  And then having to repeat things multiple times?  I usually end up looking for the controller or the remote because it's just faster in the end.

  12. 0 | Reply
    cseafous Alpha Member #610 - 3 weeks ago

    Great point!  I use Cortana the most when I'm in my car. Hands free for music, text (running late, on the way, etc.). I use it the least at home.

    Having multiple assistants could be an issue as well.  If I use Cortana or Siri at work to set a reminder to take out the trash tonight, Google Home isn't going to know to remind me when the time comes.

  13. 0 | Reply
    mortarm - 3 weeks ago

    Looks like a Glade air freshener.

  14. 0 | Reply
    wolters Alpha Member #390 - 10 hours ago

    To me, the other fatal flaw has to be that it has to receive a CAST from your phone to play music. It doesn't simply get them from the cloud via the device itself. And even then, 1 to 2 songs in, it simply crashes on my phone and stops the music. 

  15. 0 | Reply
    mortarm - 3 weeks ago

    You could create an account specifically for the Home. 

  16. 0 | Reply
    BeckoningEagle Alpha Member #613 - 4 weeks ago

    The only thing I consistently use Siri is to set up timers and alarms.

    Sometimes to call people or text while using CarPlay , but I find myself using it less and less and simply enjoying a quiet drive.

  17. 0 | Reply
    JerryH Alpha Member #248 - 4 weeks ago

    Yes, exactly Paul. This was obvious to me from the introduction of the device. I bought two anyway - because I plan to replace the Echo and Echo Dot we have now with them. I think they will fix this, eventually - if they don't get tired of it and just cancel it like they cancel many other things.

    So, this isn't the only device using Google stuff to have this problem. For example I just got a really nice Vizio M65-D0. It has 4K Google Cast built in. The remote control is actually a 6 inch Android tablet (running ancient Android). So it has a sign in. And it is, of course, a shared device. I want it to be able to cast to my TV, cast to my Chromecast Audios (we have several), etc. So I did this:

    Created a new Google Account for the family. Gave it access to the Play Music family plan. Gave it access to NOTHING else. (Obviously it has its own gmail, calendar, etc. - but not mine, not my Wife's not my kids.). Set it up with no screen lock - because it is a remote control and everyone needs to be able to use it, even a guest.

    So guess what account is going to go on the Google Home? Yep, that one. I expect to be able to use it to cast Play Music to my Chromecast Audio devices, eventually with the coming integration to be able to send NetFlix to my TVs, ask it questions, etc. I don't plan to use it for calendar until they fix the multi-user issue. I may setup up a shared list in Keep on that family account that people can add shopping to. We already have a shared list, but could convert to one shared on that other account. 

    I sure hope they fix the family issue. For now, it will work for me but be hobbled until they do.

  18. 0 | Reply
    lvthunder Alpha Member #2039 - 4 weeks ago

    It sounds like it was designed by a group of people who live alone.  There is no reason the device can't listen for more than one activation word and switch accounts accordingly.  

  19. 0 | Reply
    millergeee Alpha Member #1807 - 4 weeks ago

    You could always set up a new family google account... Not perfect but, it will alleviate confusion during testing.

  20. 0 | Reply
    Narg Alpha Member #420 - 4 weeks ago

    Here's an idea.  Two of them with different wake phrases.  Wouldn't that work?

  21. 0 | Reply
    jean Alpha Member #2159 - 4 weeks ago

    well, the Google eco-system is purely personal - there you go - I doubt if there will be any way to fix that... it's the basic architecture of that eco-system and wasn't really considered during the design - hilarious

    you can't just login everytime you'd use the device - recognizing people by voice good luck - would never work with my family

     

  22. 0 | Reply
    jwpear Alpha Member #2194 - 4 weeks ago

    And it's ugly.  About as attractive as a beige PC from the 90's.

  23. 0 | Reply
    cjhawkins3rd Alpha Member #1892 - 4 weeks ago

    We are only at the beginning.  ONLY die hard early adopters buy these things.  Echo is bought as an entertainment toy by early adopters.  But that is how new tech develops if it crosses the chasm....

  24. 0 | Reply
    glenn8878 Alpha Member #2387 - 4 weeks ago

    You never buy a 1.0 device. Maybe just create a family Google account. Start over for just this device. Will you remember to log-off each time you use the device?

    And it isn't easy to verbally change accounts for a voice device. It will just be hard to do. For my family computer, we use my account because everything is setup with purchased apps. If each person opens their own account, they won't have a consistent experience. You'll have to set up each account with family sharing and download apps and set them up separately. Who really wants to do this?

  25. 0 | Reply
    jean Alpha Member #2159 - 4 weeks ago

    furthermore: it's disclosing personal information to anyone in reach of that device - even to guests / visitors (craftspeople) in your house

  26. 0 | Reply
    EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 4 weeks ago

    Yeah...that would seem like a non-starter for anyone but a single person.  So...adding something like Voice Recognition configured to each user's Google account isn't a thing yet?

  27. 0 | Reply
    johnbaxter Alpha Member #745 - 4 weeks ago

    The rumor sites are claiming that Apple hasn't shipped a Siri-based box for the home for exactly this reason and that they will resolve it (with strong "who is talking" capability) before shipping (if they can).

    For me, not much of an issue (I'm the only one living here and I can shut off and hide the machine before visitors arrive.) So I have other reasons for not having such a machine.