Google just dropped a bombshell. It’s white, has four flickering colors on top, and can tell you how many stars are in the galaxy (plus or minus a few bazillion).
At the Google I/O 2016 conference today, Google announced the new Google Home product, which is remarkably similar to the Amazon Echo. It’s a speaker, it can control the lights, and it can answer trivia questions. Instead of saying “Alexa” you say “OK, Google” to get the robot’s attention.
And, in case you were wondering -- it is definitely a robot. While Home can play music, it’s intended to do anything and everything at home and office, not just stream Radiohead.
One of the big differentiators is that you can have multiple Home devices, one in each room, upstairs in the den, or even on the patio. It works with the Google OnHub router, one of my favorite products from Google because of how it streamlines Wi-Fi. Home fits in nicely with the design of the OnHub as a customizable cylinder you wouldn’t mind having next to your HDTV. There’s no word about when the device ships, but you can sign up to receive updates.
This will be quite the battle, because voice has finally hit the mainstream. We have started accepting the idea of talking to our phones and televisions. I use Alexa every morning and ask her to read the news and report on the weather. Google has some work to do to catch up. The Echo can order a pizza for you from Domino's, read you a book, remind you about events, control your front door locks using the Vivint service, and dim the lights.
What’s amazing about the Echo (and other Amazon products that support Alexa like the Dot and the Fire TV) is how many companies like TP-Link, Lutron, and LIFX have gravitated to it. Tech companies have told me several times in meetings that the voice control “just works” and that the Echo is particularly good at listening to your voice even from across the room. It has a massive vocabulary. If you say the word “Vivint” and own that security system and have the skill configured, Alexa will then guide you through how to lock the doors in your house or dim the lights. It’s amazing.
But, not perfect. If you say a random phrase that only partially makes sense -- like “What is on my syllabus for today” -- Alexa won’t even try to understand what you mean. If you say “Speaka da Deutsch?” as a question, she gets confused. This is where Google has an upper hand. The Google Now and Google search voice-control app is on every Android smartphone and tablet, available from your browser, and runs on gadgets like the NVIDIA Shield TV. I’ve always been impressed with how Google Now understands context. If you ask what time the Golden State Warriors play, Google will give you the time. If you ask “Which channel?” the app will tell you TNT.
Alexa doesn’t do that. She doesn’t understand follow-up questions. When I tested this, the Echo answered correctly about the game time, then didn’t know what to say about my channel question. That’s not a conversational approach, and Google already has the tech working on millions and millions of devices.
What won’t work as well? Google Home will be a standalone device, so the last part of the intro video shown at Google I/O when the kid says goodbye and the lights turn off isn’t going to happen for a while. Home will not offer an open API at first, which was the killer feature on the Echo. They want to learn more about how people use Home.
That means, it gets points for voice control, speaker quality, and likely an easy setup process with OnHub. It loses in what you will be able to do at first.
Heck, it won’t even order a pizza.
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