At its press event in San Francisco next week, Google is expected to not only unveil new flagship phones, but also officially launch Google Home, a Wifi-connected smart speaker that can be best described as Google’s answer to Amazon’s Echo — but it’s just a first step in an ambitious plan to battle Amazon for dominance in the home.
Google has already started to talk to consumer electronics manufacturers about building other devices that will work just like Google Home, Variety has learned. Key to these efforts is another device that has been built by the same team as Google Home: Chromecast, and its music-loving sibling Chromecast Audio.
How Casting Became A Trojan Horse
Google revealed key details of this plan during a closed-door meeting with industry insiders about a month after publicly unveiling Google Home. The meeting was attended by around 50 participants, and held in Google’s Mountain View offices. It brought some of the biggest names of home audio together in one room.
Some of the companies in attendance have already been working with Google by selling Wifi-enabled speakers powered by Google Cast, the same technology that’s behind Google’s popular Chromecast streaming adapter. Chromecast and Google Home do share some key technology, and Google now wants to use these existing relationships to get consumer electronics manufacturers to build their own versions of Google Home — smart speakers that are powered by Google’s cloud-based assistant.
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“Google Cast has become a Trojan horse,” said one of the attendees, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record with Variety. This insider estimated that some of the companies that attended the meeting may be ready to unveil speakers with integrated microphones and a connection to Google’s assistant as early as next summer.
Amazon’s Echo Is the Next Search Bar
Google’s overtures to consumer electronics makers come at a time of upheaval for many home audio brands. Premium stereo equipment makers in particular have seen their sales diminished in recent years by both changing listening habits and a rapid evolution of technology.
The move to streaming audio led music fans to massively embrace headphones and cheap Bluetooth speakers. Then Sonos came along and established itself as the market leader for premium Wifi-connected speakers. And finally, Amazon surprised everyone with the Echo, a device that redefined what a speaker does, thanks to smart voice control that can be used to request songs, news headlines, the weather, and even to order a pizza or an Uber.
Amazon hasn’t released any official sales numbers for the Echo yet, but analysts peg the number of Echos sold north of 3 million. Reportedly, Amazon plans to sell as many as 10 million Echo devices next year.
Home audio vendors are more than a bit concerned about this trend. So is Google, albeit for other reasons. To Google, the Echo isn’t just another speaker. It’s part of a bigger move away from text- and app-based interfaces that require users to seek out information to voice-based systems that offer more natural interaction. In other words: It’s what’s next after Google’s search bar — and it’s made by a competitor.
Google Home Is Built for the Entire House
That’s why Google developed Google Home, a small speaker with integrated microphones that responds to voice commands to play music and tap into Google-operated services for additional smarts. Google hasn’t actually given any live demonstrations of the product yet, but a product video shown at Google I/O in June showed users asking the speaker to query Google Calendar, send text messages to contacts, translate phrases, control connected light bulbs and more.
The device is powered by Google Assistant: A smart, personalized assistant in the cloud that can respond to questions and commands, making use of the data Google has about its users.
Google Home also integrates with Google Cast, the same technology that powers Google’s popular Chromecast streaming adapter. Consumers will be able to launch audio from their favorite Cast-compatible streaming apps on Google Home, including Spotify, Tunein, Pandora, NPR One, SoundCloud and more.
At the same time, Google Home also works as a Cast sender, which means that it can launch media playback on other Cast-compatible devices. Consumers will, for example, be able to launch YouTube video playback on their TVs by telling Google Home what they want to watch. What’s more, Google Home can play music in sync with other Google Cast-capable speakers or Chromecast Audio-equipped stereo systems.
The Battle for Your Bedroom
Consumers who own an Echo often put that device in their kitchen, but Amazon has made some moves to take over their bedrooms, and the rest of the house, as well. The company recently introduced a slimmed-down version of the Echo called the Echo Dot, and is now trying to convince consumers that they need one of these devices for every room. At the same time, Amazon has started to collaborate with third-party consumer electronics brands to add Alexa technology to their devices.
Amazon struck a deal with Sonos to leverage the Echo for voice control for existing Sonos speaker systems in August, and followed up this week with a similar deal with DTS for Wifi speakers powered by the company’s Play-Fi technology. And if that wasn’t enough, Amazon has also enabled a number of smaller manufacturers to add its Alexa smart assistant directly to their speaker systems.
Google’s own negotiations with consumer electronics manufacturers could be hampered by what multiple sources have described as overly aggressive muscle-flexing. At the meeting in June, Google is said to have told home audio vendors that they won’t be allowed to add any other digital assistants than Google’s own to their hardware if they want to continue to use Google Cast. Another source told Variety of similarly far-reaching demands made in negotiations with another big consumer electronics manufacturer — demands that ultimately led to talks breaking down.
(A Google spokesperson declined to comment on plans to add Google Assistant to third-party hardware, or on the meeting in question. She did however point out that some consumer electronics manufacturers have in the past used Google Cast in addition to competing technologies like AirPlay and Bluetooth.)
In the end, Google’s plan to beat Amazon’s Echo may still hinge on the performance of Google Home. Multiple leaks suggest that Google will sell the device for $130, which is $50 less than the price of an Amazon Echo. If anything, Google has shown with the success of its $35 Chromecast that these price differences can matter.
And perhaps, Chromecast really will act as a Trojan Horse for Google Home — and lay the foundation for a full-blown home invasion in 2017.