If you’ve held off on buying an Amazon Echo, you’ll soon have an alternative option: Google Home.
At its annual developer conference I/O on Wednesday, Google (GOOGL) announced Home, its new smart speaker. Gadget geeks have known the device was coming—it was reportedly developed under the internal codename Chirp—but now we all know a lot more. Specifically, we know Home will use the beefed-up, voice-activated Google Assistant, also announced today, and that it can serve you up music, weather, directions, flight information and much more.
In other words, Home is Google’s answer to Amazon’s Echo. And it ought to scare Amazon (AMZN), because Google has a number of pre-existing business advantages that almost guarantee this product’s success.
Big-name partner potential
During the keynote, Google showed a splashy list of partners it has been working with on its voice platform. The list was a murderer’s row of buzzy names, including TicketMaster (LYV), WhatsApp (FB), Pandora (P), GrubHub (GRUB), OpenTable, Spotify, Uber and Instacart.
Google is not yet announcing its official partners for Home, but you can expect many of these to be on the list, since they’re working with Google on the voice assistant and Home operates on the voice assistant. Google is not yet opening up its Home platform to all third-party developers, as Amazon has done with Echo, but if it has partners like these, it doesn’t need to. Companies like WhatsApp, OpenTable, and Instacart would offer a user services (send a text message; book a dinner reservation; select groceries) via verbal command, without having to open up an app or visit a website.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Facebook announced something very similar at its own developer conference, F8, just last month. Facebook (FB) is doing it in Messenger using automated chat-bots, but it’s the same kind of gambit. It’s a bet that users will love the convenience of ordering services all in one place, from a human-like entity, without having to visit the separate web homes of those individual services. Both Facebook and Google are looking down the road to a time when people want to do every web function in one place. Facebook, of course, has been moving toward that goal for years with products like Instant Articles, which let you read news stories without having to leave Facebook.
Voice tech + search data
Google has had a voice assistant for some time now, activated from your smartphone by saying, “Okay, Google,” as shown in an ongoing ad campaign. It was called Google Now. The voice technology has been praised, but the assistant has also operated a bit under the radar compared to Apple’s Siri and, now, Amazon’s Alexa.
The launch of Home, it appears, is the true coming-out party for Google Assistant. On stage at I/O, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had a conversation with the assistant and bragged that it has abilities “far beyond what other assistants can do.” Yes, consider that a direct jab at Siri and Alexa and Microsoft’s lesser-known Cortana at a time when, according to Pichai, 20% of mobile searches are now made verbally.
Google has a built-in advantage here over Amazon Echo, even though Amazon was first out the gate with a smart speaker product. It has the technology, and more importantly, it has the data—a whole decade of search data that means Google has a better sense, faster, of exactly what you want when you search for something. (Amazon has earned praise, over the years, for the effectiveness of its retail recommendation engine, but that’s a different kind of proposition and can’t really compare to Google search.)
In addition to its vast data and experience in handling search queries, Google has its established suite of organizational products you use every day: Calendar, Mail, and Drive, to name a few. Expect to be able to access any of those through Home. (“Read me my Gmail,” you’ll say, as you sit in your leather recliner with a glass of port.)
As Google’s VP of product management Mario Queiroz touted at I/O, Home and its Assistant is “like having a voice-activated remote control to the real world whenever you need it.” That has been the marketing position of Echo, too, but it hasn’t yet caught fire, as consumer awareness of the product still has a long way to go. (Amazon doesn’t break out sales of its hardware, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners recently estimated 3 million Echos have sold.)
Google Home doesn’t have a price yet, but it will have a customizable base. That’s appealing to anyone who doesn’t love the look of the all-black Echo. And Home certainly has a different look than the Echo: short and stout versus tall and cylindrical. It’s a little…. cuter. It somewhat resembles Nest products, which brings us to another advantage Google has in this new device battle.
It raised eyebrows when Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014. The smart-home device maker has earned design plaudits for its thermostat and smoke detector, but Nest hasn’t seen the sales success that Google would have hoped. Now we see how Google will attempt to take better advantage of the Nest acquisition: by linking up Assistant to Nest devices. What Google is really doing here is bringing all of its software and hardware into one hub, from which a user can access any of them, quickly. (To be sure, Echo, too, has devices it can connect with, like the Samsung home hub, Wink home hub, and Philips Hue lighting.)
Home will have the advantage of popular Google assets behind it, but it is more than just a single central hub for Google products. Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson sees it as a little bit of marketing magic, too: “an attempt to bring together a set of disparate efforts at Google that have lacked a coherent brand.” Indeed, there wasn’t a single catchy name (“Googie?”) for Google’s voice assistant before. There still isn’t a human name, but with Home and messaging app Allo (also announced today at I/O), there are now concrete outlets for the assistant. “This should help Google compete more effectively both with Amazon’s Echo device but also with better-branded personal assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa,” Dawson says.
Why not go ahead and give the assistant a human name? Perhaps it’s better to leave that up to you. Dawson says the lack of a human name “may make it harder for users to engage with it on a personal level, but also avoids some of the problematic issues with generally female-gendered assistants.”
Google Assistant is genderless and faceless, which is actually fitting of Google’s image. The bigger question: Is it useful enough to spur purchases of Home?
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.