With a white, minimalist design and a splash of vibrancy provided by a colourful interchangeable speaker cover, Google Home looks the part of a device that wants to become the technological centre of all our homes.
Alphabet’s latest foray into hardware certainly shares several key characteristics with its direct competitor, Amazon’s much-vaunted Echo. Both are controlled primarily by voice recognition, are embedded with ‘intelligent’ software to allow them to respond to natural human language and not only output audio as stand-alone speakers, but can also control several devices around the house.
Being cheaper (and arguably better looking) than its rival and with a number of unique abilities of its own, Google Home represents a powerful shot across the bow to challenge Alexa as the pre-eminent voice control platform for the connected home.
A more intelligent conversation
Google is well known for its AI prowess (AlphaGo being a prime example), so it is unsurprising that its smart speaker will rely on its proprietary Google Assistant technology. This AI-based software platform not only uses the company’s extensive Knowledge Graph database of upwards of 70 billion facts, but is also said to be able to handle multi-layer queries using the context of previous questions to inform its decision-making process.
This could be a key differentiator for Google, as such capabilities are currently beyond both Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Having to simplify or modify your language for certain Echo functions have long been one of its greatest weaknesses; it will be interesting to see if Google’s extensive search and knowledge base can improve on the user experience and make voice control useful for more than simple queries and requests.
Not so confidential
Privacy is an issue with many voice-enabled devices and Google Home is no exception. Much like the Echo, it uses fair-field voice recognition and actively listens out for its wake word at all times, unless the microphone is muted by the user via a button on the device itself, which stops the device being a convenient way to control the home.
This ‘always-on’ approach will hardly endear it to privacy conscious users, particularly as it stores interactions and builds a ‘data profile’ of users much like the Echo, ostensibly to improve the user experience. The ability for these units to accumulate mass user data on behaviour in the home is of massive benefit to an e-commerce leader like Amazon and a search and advertising giant like Google – hardly a cause for reassurance for homeowners conscious about their digital footprints.
Connection not found
Google is keen to promote Chromecast as its affordable answer for connecting the dots in the home, so it is hardly surprising that the Home speaker relies heavily on the Chromecast framework to control devices around a property. While this opens up a number of interesting possibilities, including features such as controlling groups of speakers and streaming 4K and HDR video content on nearby screens with the new Chromecast Ultra, the options are more limited for those whose connected homes aren’t built on Google devices.
Beyond its proprietary connected home hardware, the list of Google Home’s smart home partners at launch is limited to the usual suspects – Nest, Samsung SmartThings and Philips Hue – as well as a number of do-it-yourself IFTTT integrations. This compares unfavourably with Amazon’s ever-increasing list of established home automation partners and makes the Echo by far the more flexible option for controlling connected home systems at the moment.
That said, it is only recently that most smart home manufacturers started to jump on the Alexa bandwagon; if Google can secure a similar number of partnerships with key businesses in the coming months before its UK release, it has the potential to strongly challenge Amazon in this area as well. By and large, connected home technology providers are including more and more third-party functionality in their eco-systems; while Crestron has confirmed that it is not looking to work with Google Home in the immediate future, it seems a safe bet that it and other control system manufacturers would look to integrate both Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa as voice control options if the former proves popular with consumers.
Despite its early promise, Google Home clearly has a long way to go before it can rival the full third-party capabilities of its established rival but, considering Google’s clout in the tech world, that would seem to be simply a matter of time. If Google’s AI is as sophisticated as the company claims and it can roll out its device to other territories faster than the Amazon Echo, there could be a real scrap over which technology giant gets to listen in on the connected home in return for the utility of voice control around the house.
A hub that pairs with Pixel
More than anything, October’s ‘Made by Google’ event cemented the Mountain View company’s re-emergence as a significant player in the hardware stakes. As well as Google Home and the Chromecast Ultra, this year’s extravaganza saw the unveiling of Google’s own virtual reality headset (Daydream View), modular Google WiFi boosters for building mesh networks and a line of premium smartphones called Pixel that will share Google Home’s reliance on AI through Google Assistant.
This hardware push is clearly designed to wrest the home technology momentum from its rivals, but it remains to be seen whether the latest hardware announcements will be enough to persuade customers to adopt an eco-system built on Chrome OS. Chromecast Ultra and Google WiFi look set to offer an interesting alternative to the status quo; while Google Home looks likely to compete with the Echo on its terms, neither device is yet capable of being a ready-made replacement for another, significantly more popular user interface for the connected home: the iPad.
Things will only get more complicated from here: Apple is known to be preparing its own smart hub device to complement its built-in Siri voice control on devices such as the Apple TV, while Samsung’s acquisition of AI virtual assistant Viv (built by the creators of Siri) suggests that it isn’t ready to concede on this front, either. At Made by Google, Alphabet’s Mario Queiroz described Google Home as a ‘best in class’ device that ‘sets the standard’. It will need to prove exactly that in order to beat the competition in what will quickly become a crowded space. Will it win? Even Google Assistant can’t give you that answer.