Google Home makes one heck of a first impression: An adorable little Bluetooth speaker, with a hyper-advanced personal assistant that promises to do things Amazon’s Echo can’t even dream of. You can even choose the color.
On paper, Home seems superior to Echo in so many ways that it doesn’t feel like a fair fight. That also may well be true in practice! But the race between Home and Echo may turn out to be a little more complicated than specs. Especially since the latter has such a big head start.
Home Far-Field Advantage
Let’s sing the praises of Home for a minute, or maybe even two, because it looks like it gets so much right. For starters, it’s likely to be a better aesthetic fit with your home than the Echo, unless you live aboard a monolith. Home looks like a cross between a small vase and a large salt shaker, the kind you might find on a Williams-Sonoma wedding registry. You can choose among a variety of colorful shells for its lower-half, and four LED lights on the top blink cheerfully when it’s working.
All of which is secondary to the real star of the show: Google itself. Which is to say, the world of Google services into which Echo can tap, and a voice assistant that could make Echo’s Alexa look downright remedial.
“Being able to integrate with Google search, and not only just search but a contextual search that knows my search patterns, what I’ve done in the past and can bring that to bear, is very important,” says Forrester analyst Michael Facemire.
Alexa can pull information from Wikipedia just fine, but that’s a far cry from being able to tap into Google’s knowledge graph, which understands not just people, places, and things, but how they relate to one another. And not just that; Google’s broader range of services, from Gmail to Calendar to Maps and beyond, helps it know how those things relate to you.
“With Amazon right now, the closest you can get is to integrate with your Google Calendar and ask it what events you have coming up, but it doesn’t have any kind of contextual awareness based on reading through your email, or other interactions you might have had on the web,” says Facemire. “Leveraging that is absolutely crucial to Google’s success here.”
It’s also something that Amazon simply won’t be able to reconstruct or imitate. It knows what you buy, but not much else.
Google Home should also get a significant boost from another major I/O announcement: Allo, a messaging service that calls on neural networks not just to understand your words, but reply to them. Home offers the promise of not just understanding commands, but providing conversation.
That’s not to say Echo’s at a complete disadvantage. There’s plenty of ways it matches or exceeds Google Home. It likely integrates with more smart home platforms, and has far more third-party partners in the fold. Both devices have far-field voice recognition, for across-the-room commands. Both can do the basic day-to-day jobs, the timers, the music, the to-do lists, that make products like these so essential.
Echo’s biggest edge, though, is that you can actually buy one today. In fact, millions of people already have.
Playing With a Lead
For all of Google Home’s appeal, it comes with one giant, blink-text caveat: It doesn’t exist yet. At least not in any form you can own. The closest you can get is to sign up for email updates.
“At this point, there are a lot of questions we don’t know the answer to, including price, availability date, and distribution,” says Jan Dawson, president of Jackdaw Research. Details! But important ones that are currently working to Amazon’s advantage.
The voice-assistant-Bluetooth-speaker category is nascent category, sure. But Echo has been on sale for a year and a half now, and in that time Amazon has sold three million of them, according to a recent estimate from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. There are obviously plenty of households that have never heard of an Echo, much less own one, but it would be wrong to discount Amazon’s head start.
“Being first to market is very important,” says Facemire, who also questions whether Home’s extra abilities are enough to lure away current or future Echo owners. “I’ve got three Echos in my house, and they work well. I don’t feel like my experience is suffering because a lack of Google search integration.”
While Facemire thinks the Allo-powered conversational aspect may be more appealing, it’s important to note that we’re not anywhere close to Her-level interactions yet.
There’s also the matter of distribution. Along with China’s Alibaba, Amazon is the largest online retailer in the world. That clout can move a lot of Echoes. In fact, it has; the speaker was the best-selling product over $100 across the entire site on Black Friday last year.
Even more important is Amazon’s recent willingness to play defense in categories it deems important. Specifically, it banned Apple TV and Chromecast from its digital shelves last year for spurious reasons. Google Home also competes directly on Amazon’s turf; it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon protect itself once again.
Google, meanwhile, has the Play Store, which despite winning an Webby doesn’t have anywhere near the same muscle.
Last, there’s the question of privacy, which both companies will need to continue to answer. Although maybe one more than the other. “In general, I would think people have more privacy concerns about Google than Amazon, so that’s definitely something Google will want to reassure people about,” says Dawson.
That’s not because of any bad intentions on Google’s part; it’s simply a byproduct of it already knowing so much about you.
“One of the last frontiers where you weren’t necessarily connected to Google was the home” says Dimitri Sirota, founder of privacy management firm BigID. “All of a sudden, they’re getting additional insights about you that they didn’t have.”
Amazon is as well, but it’s not able to connect quite as many dots. Then again, it also can’t know that you’re near a grocery store, and set off a voice-reminder that you need to pick up some milk. Google can. And Google Home will.
A Long Game
None of this is to say that Amazon Echo or Google Home is the better device, mostly because we can’t know that, because again, Google Home doesn’t yet exist. It’s fascinating, exciting, even, to see a brand new device category finally get some healthy competition. Especially when both parties have such different strengths to call on.
Better still? This is just the beginning. More products in this space means voice assistants will get smarter, designs will become more innovative, more parties will enter the fray. And this innovation isn’t restricted to any one device.
“At Amazon, Alexa is making its way to other devices, now including some of the Fire TV devices, and with Google this is part of a broader rollout of its new Assistant strategy,” says Dawson, who also invokes the chamfered elephant in the room. “Apple obviously already has Siri, which exists on iOS devices and Apple TV today, but could easily be extended to other devices in future too.”
Sure, this will lead to all kinds of fragmentation headaches and walled gardens and the most annoying inconveniences of mega-corporations not playing nice. But before things get too entrenched, it’ll also lead to some pretty great experiences. In fact, it already has.