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.