After getting their start on phones, voice assistants are coming to the home in a big way.
It makes a lot of sense. Although it’s often embarrassing to start talking to your phone in public, the same social pressures don’t exist in the home where you can be as weird as you like with your new robot pal.
After Google established itself with voice automation on phones, Amazon was the first to build a voice assistant into a static home speaker with the Amazon Echo.
Now Google has followed up with Google Home, a smart speaker that makes use of its own Google Assistant voice technology.
Amazon undoubtedly has the early lead, but we shouldn’t underestimate Google, which has had its own voice control system, Google Now, installed on Android devices since Jelly Bean in 2012.
Google Assistant will build on the work Google has already done in the area and, thanks to Google’s many hardware partners, might see greater adoption should it come down to a Game of Thrones-style brawl.
Amazon chose to go with a very practical design for its line of Echo speakers, opting for a simple black cylinder over anything more outlandish. Its shiny black shell with blue LEDs might be basic, but it’s unlikely to offend anyone.
The Echo also comes with a remote, which is interesting when you consider that all of that basic functionality can be accessed by uttering a few words. Still, should you ever find yourself out of Alexa’s earshot, having a remote with a built-in microphone will prove handy.
In contrast to the functional simplicity of the Amazon Echo, Google’s Home looks much more elegant. It has a rounded base that makes it look more like a vase than a speaker, and Google has also released different colored bases to allow you to customise the look of your speaker.
That means while Amazon has stuck users with a subtle design that fades into the background, Google Home can be as outlandish and loud as you like.
In summary, the Echo wants to look more at home next to your home theatre, while the Home wants to fit in with the rest of your shelf.
When it comes to features, Google has the potential to blow Amazon out of the water thanks to the massive library of existing services it has at its disposal.
Amazon might have Prime Music and Spotify, but Google not only has its own rival service, Google Play Music, but also offers integration with the Google Cast ecosystem.
If you’ve got a Chromecast audio then you can simply ask Google Home to play music through the speakers it’s connected to.
But it’s not just audio where Google’s Chromecast functionality works well, Google Home can also be used to watch video on your TV. Ask it to play ‘Stranger Things’ on your living room television for example, and it will start casting to that TV where you last left off (although you’re unable to specify a specific episode to watch).
You can even use the speaker to play and pause your content without having to go hunting for your smartphone.
Google Home integrates with a number of Google’s other services, from planning routes using Google Maps to translating using Google Translate. It will also draw from your Google Calendar, although it’s currently limited to just a single user.
Meanwhile, Amazon has an ever-growing list of compatible apps including Domino’s Pizza, Just Eat in the UK and Uber, allowing you to either have your pizza delivered or request a ride over to the store to pick it up yourself.
On a more practical note, Amazon has recently taken an interest in smart home device manufacturers too, creating partnerships with Samsung to integrate SmartThings control into the Echo, and with Philips’s Hue lighting system.
Though it’s not like Google, owner of Nest, is hurting in the home automation department. Google Nest, for obvious reasons, is also integrated into Home’s functionality.
Devices such as Philips Hue can also be controllable by both smart speakers.
When it first launched, Alexa’s functionality was fairly basic and limited to more mundane conversations like asking about the weather or the time. As Amazon continued to develop the software, however, Alexa gained the ability to talk about calendars, sports and what we should have for dinner.
We’re not quite living in a Star Trek-esque future, where the device will understand your every command, but Alexa is advanced enough to understand multiple phrasings of the same question, for example.
Amazon has a strong track record for the past two years, sure, but it’s going up against Google, a company that’s had a strong track record in information parsing for the last two decades.
Although Google Assistant, the software powering Google Home, is new, the technology is based on the work Google has already put into its Google Now voice search functionality.
This prior research, in addition to Google’s impressive search abilities, means the speaker has a lot of information at its disposal. Google Home can correctly guess a song that’s described in the vaguest of terms.
Echo can play songs by song lyric, which is handy if you forget quite what the name of the song is.
Both speakers are a work in progress in this regard, with incremental updates coming out all the time.
The Echo is not an especially cheap bit of kit. The Echo Dot, the cheapest device to integrate Alexa, costs $90/£40. The standard Echo unit costs $180/£149.
Amazon’s Echo functionality is proven, and has been refined over the course of its first year of release. It’s on a successful trajectory that, if it should continue, will make the Amazon Echo a mainstream commodity in the next few years.
Meanwhile, Google’s existing services already heavily integrate a number of different external apps and functionality, and it looks as though the search giant is planning on making full use of its existing services, including Google Translate, Google Maps and YouTube.
We’re very excited for the future of both products, obviously, and will continually update this hub as the two products grow, shift, and evolve over the coming months.