Google is playing catch up here, following in Amazon's footsteps after the company unveiled the Echo back in 2014. With the Echo, the retailer created a new home for AI digital assistants; those programs that are supposed to help manage your life by scheduling meetings, buying plane tickets, and so on. Google has been working on this sort of product for years, adding Google Now functionality to Android phones and tablets since 2012. But with the Echo, Amazon found a new way to package these voice-activated smarts (in Amazon's case in the form of its digital assistant Alexa). To date, the company has reportedly sold some 3.5 million Echo devices, and next year aims to some 10 million. Google is getting left behind.
Infiltrating our lives via the kitchen
Using the home as a staging post for digital assistants has been a canny move. It makes sense for a number of reasons — not just because talking to your computer is awkward in public (it completely is), but because your house is where you’re most likely to need a voice interface (e.g., while cooking, in the shower, lying on the couch while the phone is charging elsewhere). It's also a boon for families where every person doesn't have a smartphone, and if you don’t already own a Bluetooth speaker, then devices like the Echo kill two birds with one stone. You get something to play music on in your kitchen or living room, and the extra functions — answering questions, setting up timers, helping with your shopping — are an added bonus.
The Amazon Echo. So how can Google beat Amazon here? After using the Echo pretty extensively since its UK launch, I’d say it can, but the company has to focus on two key areas: Google Home has to understand users better and it has to offer them more sophisticated help.
One of the most frustrating things I’ve found about the Echo is its limited understanding of language, especially with downloaded Skills (what Amazon calls Echo apps). When I downloaded a joke Skill, I found it couldn’t distinguish between the commands "tell me a joke" and "tell a joke." Just two letters’ difference and it wouldn’t work. This is a problem with third-party software, admittedly, but it’s bad that Amazon can’t share Echo’s language processing skills. When you’re using a device with a screen there are usually visual hints about how to work software, but with voice interfaces you have to rely on trial and error — and that’s really not good enough.
GOOGLE HAS THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CHOPS TO OUTPACE AMAZON Google can probably do better. Amazon may have a 1,000-strong team working on the Echo with plans to hire hundreds more, but Google’s machine learning expertise is probably unrivaled in the industry. It’s been working on natural language processing far longer than Amazon, and one-fifth of US searches on Android are done using voice. And if my tests with Google Assistant in the Allo messaging app are anything to go by, the company is already better at parsing complicated queries than Alexa. (Although it has to be said there isn’t a massive difference; Google’s Assistant was just able to recognize more variants of question formats.)