Yesterday I speculated about when we might see Google's answer to Echo. Turns out we didn't have to wait long.
That's because today they announced Google Home. Like Echo, Home is the physical host for a virtual assistant, only instead of Alexa, Google's assistant is called (you guessed it) Google Assistant.
Below is a first run at analyzing the various aspects of the Google Home news and a few closing thoughts:
Physical look and feel
As we've seen with the OnHub, Google has lately been moving towards non-conventional looks for their home hardware products and Google Home is no exception. Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover tweeted about how the product looked like a Renuzit air freshener, and I have a feeling Google engineers may actually be happy with that comparison. That's because Google wants its devices to fit in the kitchen and other living spaces, not look like the black boxes sitting in wiring closets. Mission accomplished.
While the AI and smart home features are what makes Google Home potentially disruptive, the reality is it's actually a speaker and one that Google apparently put a lot of work into. Further, it appears that Google sees the Echo's fairly bland sound quality and shortcomings with multiple audio zones as a weakness it could exploit.
As per The Verge, "...Google Home is designed with multiple rooms and speakers in mind from the start. And because it's using the basic Cast standard, you can talk to any speaker and tell it to play music on other speakers, just like you can with Google Cast Audio. It will work with Google Play Music, of course, but it should also be able to handle any other service that supports Google Cast, like Spotify."
They're not quite at full Sonos, but instead it lying somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between Echo and Sonos when it comes to networked multi-zone audio. Of course, Google Home has voice control and assistance, something Sonos does not.
Virtual Assistant Technology
Ok, this is the most interesting and perhaps the most complex area to unpack.
First off, at the outset Google appears to have a dramatically different approach to third party openness and extensibility when compared to Alexa. In his talk today, Google VP Mario Queiroz indicated rather than coming out of the gate with a developer API for Google Home, they'd instead work on perfecting the Google Home skills.
Via The Verge Queiroz lays their strategy cards on the table: "(Regarding Alexa Skills) you start getting deeper and it doesn't work very well, then you're sort of disappointed. And I think that happens with Alexa sometimes."
In other words, go deep instead of wide.
And for sure, Alexa has gone wide. While I'm not sure of the latest number from Amazon, this site has the list of skills about close to 900 (some products and services have multiple skills associated with them). In many ways, a fast-growing number of ways to interact with Alexa is one of the most interesting aspects of the technology and one of the main reasons for its success. However, many of Alexa Skills are indeed fairly one-dimensional (sometimes by design, because after all, some interactions only need to go so deep). But as many of us know who have dealt with Alexa, she can sometimes reach her limits pretty quickly.
In contrast to Alexa, Google plans on initially honing the interactions and skills with a small set of initial devices as well as service partners (see below). Nest integration is pretty much a given, but beyond that Queiroz didn't really disclose an initial set of hardware products they plan to work with. My guess is that those working within the Weave/Brillo and Works with Nest ecosystem will be first up.
It's probably too soon to say which approach is better. When Amazon launched in 2014, the virtual assistance interaction layer in the home was a wide open space and they decided on a land grab approach. In contrast, Google instead appears to be choosing its spots a little more closely with a curated approach, perhaps looking to control the experience more. I can see advantages to both approaches, and Google's ultimate success here will probably depend on how rich and deep those experiences are relative to Alexa.
While the smart home piece is largely inextricable from the AI and related API strategy outlined above, it's worth at least its own quick glance. First off, I do think Google has a possible advantage if they can figure out how to plug into the existing mobile and smart home ecosystems under its care. In contrast, Amazon has largely had to build up from scratch with Echo and Alexa, while Google has, up to this point, tried to juggle a massively complex number of initiatives and product lines in the Nest, Thread, Weave, Dropcam and Android ecosystems.
All of these various ecosystems create a drag on internal efforts to innovate. There's infighting and turf defending, as well as just the general need to coordinate to make sure the different entities aren't completely working at odds with one another. The beauty of Amazon's Echo was it was largely above all that, literally in terms of where it sat in the stack but also because Amazon could work off a fresh piece of paper.
With Home, the hope is Google can do much the same. Conceivably the Home product can operate independently, both from a market sales and channel perspective as well as a technical perspective, but also integrate where Google sees fit to create interesting deep integration scenarios that create rich and powerful consumer experiences.
Lastly, Google also announced its new chat app Allo today, which is also integrated with Google Assistant. One of the ways in which I think consumers will increasingly interact with their homes - beyond in-home virtual assistant powered speakers - is through unified messaging (and bot-powered) apps. I could see Allo morphing its way to become the smart home and IoT control and interaction app on Android devices for consumer smart homes. Keep an eye out for that.
Final Takeaway Thoughts
- Overall, I think this is a good start for Google. One of the mysteries of the modern smart home era to me has been the slowness with which Google has been moving, particularly where they have strengths as with their virtual assistant technology.
- I've seem some initial articles and posts saying this is the first nail in Echo's coffin. This is pretty silly. For one, Google's shown over the past year or so they have serious execution and strategy issues within their smart home team, and have been known as a company that can easily abandon products as well as launch them. While I don't think they'll do that with Home, it's pretty silly to say the current market leader - particularly one who's been outmaneuvering everyone in this space for the past few years - is in trouble.
- This move by Google makes me wonder what Apple's move here is. As some know, I've advocated they open up the pocketbooks and buy Sonos, as the idea of Sonos and Siri is a pretty powerful combo and would instantly provide Apple with an answer to this fast-growing category.
I'll have more thoughts in coming days (and a podcast tomorrow morning) about this. Stay tuned.
If you want to get articles like this in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter. Also, check out the Smart Kitchen Summit, our event on the future of cooking and the kitchen.