Google is about to take over Europe’s biggest tech show

The consumer electronics industry works in cycles of infatuation. Every couple of years, some new technology captures the attention of most manufacturers and triggers a wild race to be the first, cheapest, or best with it. We’ve been through the netbook and e-reader manias, followed by the tablet deluge, the 3D TV moment, the 2-in-1 laptop transformation, the flood of Bluetooth speakers and headphones, and, most recently, the Alexa-fication of everything. This year at IFA, the unmissable common thread to new announcements is shaping up to be the Google Assistant.

It’s been six years since Google Assistant got its start as a key component of Google Now, the predictive “search without search” facility that Google built into Android. In the time since then, Google’s Assistant has established itself as the consensus leader among voice assistants — which is now a growing field that includes Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Baidu’s China-centric alternative — built on Google’s unmatched access to information and advanced AI research. On smartphones at least, the Google Assistant is winning on the strength of being the best, and the pre-IFA announcements underscore that point: Bang & Olufsen, Harman Kardon, and LG are all either adding it to existing products, announcing new ones with the Assistant built in, or expanding availability.

What’s intriguing about 2018 is how big a push Google is making to expand the Assistant to more devices and categories than its native smartphone milieu. There’s the Google Home smart speaker range, of course, but that’s just the tip of the Assistant spear. Google spent lavishly on maintaining a conspicuous presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January, and since then the number of Assistant-supporting devices has skyrocketed (from 1,500 in January to 5,000 in May). CES felt like a clash of giants, as Google was confronting the widespread popularity of Amazon’s Alexa (which enjoys compatibility with more than 12,000 devices), but half a year later, IFA really looks like it’ll be all Google all the time.

Amazon deserves a measure of credit for proving the viability and appeal of smart speakers with its Alexa-powered Echo, but what Google is doing with the Assistant is fundamentally different because it plugs users into a whole different ecosystem. Sure, once integrated within smart speakers or displays, the Assistant can be your voice remote control for music, or a cooking timer, or a deliverer of reminders, like Alexa can. But it’s the Google-on-your-countertop experience that truly differentiates it.

The Assistant is a two-way system, an exchange of data between Google and its user. In a mobile context, you give Google some knowledge about yourself, such as your location, and it responds by giving you the info you need, such as the nearest grocer that sells reasonably priced avocados. At home, should you be willing to be that bit more forthcoming with Google, the company’s Assistant can proactively warn you about potential traffic or transport issues along your typical commute route. The more it knows, the more useful it will be — and since the majority of people are likely to already share a ton of information with Google through their use of Gmail, Chrome, Maps, YouTube, and Android, the barriers to entry and additive privacy concerns aren’t high.

For the device manufacturers that will be making all the big announcements this week, integrating support for Google Assistant is a no-brainer. Companies like Bose and LG have even built Assistant-triggering buttons into their products, because it’s a cheap and effective way to claim a new product is “smart” without having to do all the hard work of actually making it so.

Google secured iPhone support for the Assistant last year, and it has Samsung shipping the Google Assistant alongside the dreadful Bixby on Galaxy devices, so it has almost total coverage of the mobile realm outside of China. Other Android device manufacturers, such as HTC, have opted to preinstall both Alexa and Google Assistant on their phones — because, again, tacking on software features that someone else is actively developing and improving is a free win for hardware companies. A report from earlier this summer also suggests that Microsoft’s Xbox One console is headed to a future of supporting both Alexa and its Google competitor.

The preeminence of Google Assistant at IFA this year will be in large part because most manufacturers that wanted to build Alexa into their devices have already done so and made those announcements. Google is still catching up. But, in classic Google fashion, the Mountain View company is doing so at a formidable pace, and it stands a good chance of eventually surpassing Amazon with the help of network effects from its other ubiquitously used services.

It’s increasingly rare to see whole new hardware categories sweep the mature consumer tech market up in a frenzy, however the interfaces we use to interact with our existing devices are still evolving and changing. The Google Assistant is just one piece of the puzzle of how we’ll control and exploit the gadgets around us in the future. As a fragment that’s trickling down from Google’s smartphone platform to devices and appliances at home, it’s also a neat advance toward the perennial promise of a truly smart home.

As for Google itself, use of the Assistant opens up another rich vein of user data that it can tap to expand its information empire. It’s a win for all the companies involved, and it’s a win for those among us who are happy to trade some privacy away for greater convenience.

Nest’s security system has had partial outages all day

Nest’s security system has been having troubles all morning. The system’s control unit — the Nest Guard — has appeared offline since around 4AM ET. While offline, homeowners haven’t been able to remotely arm or disarm the system through Nest’s app. The system continued to monitor security sensors even through the connectivity problems. However, it’s unclear if the unit was still capable of calling for help after detecting an intrusion.

More than a dozen people on Twitter said that their Guard had been disconnected in the middle of the night. The Verge’s test unit of the Nest Guard went down at 4:11AM ET as well. The Nest x Yale Lock was said to be experiencing the same problem.

In a statement provided this afternoon, Nest said the problem impacted “a limited number” of devices and that they were now coming back online. “While these devices could not be controlled through the Nest app while offline, they were still accessible via physical interaction and continued to function,” the company wrote. The Verge’s unit remained offline immediately after receiving the statement, and Nest didn’t provide any details on what went wrong.

While it’s unclear exactly how much of the system was nonfunctional, the fact that there’s been an issue at all has some owners rightfully concerned: this is a security system, after all, which makes any amount of downtime a critical flaw.

Nest launched its home security system, Nest Secure, last September, and earlier this summer, it cut the system’s price by $100, bringing it down to $400. The system offers professional monitoring, but it’s meant for the DIY crowd who want to save money by avoiding the pricey contracts and installation fees associated with traditional alarm systems. Nest is going up against quite a few competitors — including Ring, which has an alarm system that costs half the price — and it will have to convince shoppers that its higher-tech solution is a better option than traditional and trusted tech.

This isn’t the first time Nest has seen outages of its tech, either. Back in May, the Nest Secure, Nest x Yale Lock, and even more devices experienced connectivity problems.

JBL’s Android TV soundbar will sell for $400 in October

JBL’s Link Bar is one of the more interesting Android devices to be announced this year: the product first and foremost appears to be a soundbar, but it also has Android TV and Google Assistant functionality built-in. So once it’s set up, you have a voice-activated speaker that can control your TV and do the many other things that smart speakers are capable of doing, while also giving your TV better sound.

The Link Bar was announced back in May, but now we finally know when it’s coming out and how much it’ll cost: Android Police spotted a preorder listing on B&H, where it’s going for $399.95 with the ship date listed as October 16th.

That puts it on the pricier end of smart speakers and soundbars, but if you’re investing in Google’s ecosystem, the combination might just make sense. A soundbar is a simple way to improve your TV’s audio quality; and while soundbars aren’t usually as good as a general purpose speaker system for playing music, the Link Bar’s price is on par with high-end smart speakers, like Google’s $399 Home Max.

For it to add up, the product will have to be good at a lot of very different things. But it could make for a compelling combination if JBL gets it right.

Google Home Max is finally launching in a third country with Australian availability

Google is launching the Home Max in Australia, making it the third country to get the larger and louder Google Home speaker since it was first announced last October, via 9to5Google.

Australia joins the United States (which got the Home Max in December, a few months after Google first announced it) and Canada (which got it last May) as the only countries in the world where Google sells the Home Max.

The Home Max will officially launch in Australia on August 9th for $549 (in Australian dollars, which works out to roughly $404 in American currency). It will be available at JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman, David Jones, The Good Guys, Officeworks, and the online Google Store.