Mario Queiroz introduces Google Home during the Google I/O 2016 developers’ conference at Mountain View, California in May 2016. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters Alex Hern
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Tuesday 4 October 2016 07.00 BST
Talking to computers was once for the likes of Captain Kirk, but a new product due to be announced byGoogle on Tuesday demonstrates that it believes devices that can speak to humans are ready for the living room.
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The search engine giant is expected to launch its Google Home “personal assistant” speaker system – a squat cylinder that will be able to process search requests and other everyday tasks when instructed to by the sound of a human voice.
For many, conversations with computers consist of frustrating attempts to provide credit card numbers to a bank or talking to a bemused mobile phone, but Amazon has transformed the market, with the help of Alexa, its digital assistant, which lives inside its multimillion-selling Echo.
A week ago Amazon said it would start selling the Echo in the UK at £149.99, two years after its introduction in the US, where it had become a sleeper hit. Despite a low-key launch the Echo sold 3.5m units in the time it took Amazon to adapt the device to recognise the full gamut of British English accents and voices. The Echo and other such “smart speakers” connect to home Wi-Fi, and owners can ask them to play music, read them the headlines, or even turn on the lights (provided they’ve got the requisite smart home gear installed elsewhere).
There is a history of voice control devices such as Siri, on Apple iPhones, and Google Now promising to revolutionise the way we interact with technology – or, more specifically, talking only to disappoint in reality, but the latest devices could change that.
The Echo’s omnidirectional microphones let it hear across a room, while its speech recognition is head and shoulders above the competition.
Amazon Echo voice-controlled speakers, seen here in one of the company’s ‘fulfilment centres’ went on sale in the UK last week. Photograph: Mikael Buck/Rex Shutterstock There is also a difference in the role the devices are intended to take in the lives of users. Phones – where voice assistants have appeared to date – are intensely personal, which means they aren’t best placed to be the central smart device for an entire family.
Britons aren’t as comfortable with speaking to their phones as Americans are. In the US, one-fifth of searches on Google Android are made by voice, according to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.
What Amazon and Google are banking on is that a new device will be able to overcome this barrier. By moving the voice control hub out of people’s pocket and into their living room or kitchen, they hope it will become more natural.
If Amazon can replicate its US success, then it seems likely that a new hardware category will be born, with the two companies fighting to be the one provider of intelligent speakers.
While there are similarities between their devices, there’s also a vast gulf between what Amazon and Google hope to get out of putting a smart device in every room.
“Amazon approaches this … from the point of view of the connected home as the primary locus of electronic commerce,” says Werner Goertz from industry analysts Gartner. It’s trivial to use the Echo to shop on Amazon rather than wander around the kitchen, verbally adding ingredients to a shopping list, then open the companion app and tell Amazon to order it all.
Google’s device hopes to go further, hooking into people’s Google accounts across the web: not only does it know the events on their calendar, it also knows where people are going on holiday to next, or when the last package someone posted is due to arrive at its destination.
Goertz points out that those advantages will only grow: not only with the company’s first in-house phones, expected to be launched alongside Home on Tuesday, but also with the company’s experimentation in self-driving cars.
For some, that may be an intrusion too far. Google has always had to walk a fine line between “caring” and “creepy”, and at times it has crossed it (take, for example, the time it launched a social network, Buzz, that automatically added as a friend everyone you had ever emailed).
When the Echo was launched in the US in 2014, reaction then also focused on the creepy aspects of the device, especially the fact that the microphone is never turned off so that it is always listening for the device’s “wake word”. Two years on, that technology is normal: iPhones and Android devices both use the same system to enable Google Now and Siri, for example.
Whether or not devices like the Echo and Home can cross over from American early adopters to worldwide hits is important for the wider technology industry too. The smartphone boom in the west is almost over, and even though people are still buying new phones every two years, the industry needs another popular device for profits to stay high: current hopes according to market analysts Gartner is that the market will be worth $2bn worldwide by 2020.
There’s one huge name missing from this: Apple. While it has been steadily improving Siri, and rolling it out to ever more devices, from the iPhone to Macs and Watches, it is not making a dash for the living room at the same rate as Google and Amazon.
“Apple,” Goertz says, “is dropping behind in this race.” It risks being “late to market unless it can come up with substantial product announcements by the end of this year”. That might be because its voice-recognition technology simply isn’t as strong as those two companies, or it might be that it has still got its hopes pegged on smart watches as the next big thing.
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