It was no secret that Google would announce its own smart loudspeaker at its Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco this week. Rumors about Google building an Amazon Echo-like device had been circulating for months. But Google Home, the device unveiled during Wednesday’s Google I/O keynote, is a lot more than just an Echo clone. In fact, it may just be the smartest take so far on making technology available in your home without chaining you to yet another screen.
Granted, Google Home, which the company intends to sell some time later this year, is going to do a lot of the same things that Amazon Echo already does. Consumers will be able to ask it to play their favorite music, query their calendar, check for traffic and control internet-connected light bulbs.
However, the device also integrates with other Google services and devices in a way that isn’t available on Alexa. For example, Home can send driving routes to a phone, and consumers can start playing songs on the speaker straight from the Spotify app on their phone.
A big step forward for Google Cast
The latter works because Google Home is based on Google Cast, the technology that also powers Google’s popular Chromecast streaming adapter. This means that Google Home will out of the box work with Spotify, Pandora, iHeartradio and a number of other apps that have already implemented Cast support.
“Cast support is really important,” said Google VP Mario Queiroz, in an interview with Variety Wednesday. That’s in part because for Home, casting works both ways. “Google Home is both a Cast receiver and a Cast sender,” said Queiroz.
In addition to launching music playback from your phone on a Home speaker, Home can also be used to start media playback on other Cast devices. For example, you can command it to start playing music on multiple Cast-equipped speakers in your house, or even send a video straight to your TV without ever picking up a remote control.
That’s an important addition for Google Cast devices. Chromecast always operated on the assumption that consumers don’t want to navigate through app menus on their TVs, especially if they’re already used to finding and consuming that same content via apps on their phones. “The phone is a more natural interaction model,” said Queiroz. At the same time, fishing for your phone just to skip a song or switch to a different TV show isn’t always the best choice either. “Voice is an even more natural interaction model,” he said.
The power of Google, available without a screen
Google Home’s other big asset is the company’s voice-powered artificial intelligence assistant, which was officially unveiled this week at Google I/O as well. Google Assistant is in many ways an evolution of Google Now and Google voice search and the ways both already interact with users on mobile phones. Instead of just letting users search for information, Google increasingly aims to figure out context and answer a series of questions in a more conversational way. For example, users can ask follow-up question and have real dialogues with Google Assistant.
Those same features will also be available via Google Home, allowing users to ask questions and even take actions like making reservations at restaurants or buying movie tickets through natural language, and without a rigid voice command syntax.
And as Google beefs up the capabilities of its Assistant for the billion-plus mobile devices running Android, it is also improving Home. “It’s really about integrating with the Assistant,” said Queiroz. Google CEO Sundar Pichai echoed that sentiment during his keynote: “We think of Google Assistant as an ambient experience that extends across devices.”
Granted, a lot of details are still unknown about Home. Google has said it wants to release the device this year, but has yet to reveal when exactly, or for how much. “We want to make sure that the product is accessible,” said Queiroz when asked about a price, adding that he’d like consumers to be able to afford one for every room in their house. He also said that Google wants to be “in as many markets as possible” with Home. The company currently sells Chromecast in 31 markets.
Not an Echo killer, but not a clone either
But even with these unknowns, it’s clear that Home is a pretty bold bet for Google — one that has the potential to tie all the company has been doing in the home together, while also adding all the smarts Google has already been providing on your phone. Except, to consumers, it could feel a lot natural, and less like interacting with a computer, or an app on your phone.
Does that mean that Amazon’s Echo is doomed? Probably not. Amazon has spent a lot of resources investing in voice recognition, and will continue to closely align the Echo with its own store and services. Plus, there are some consumers who might not be comfortable with giving Google even more access to their data and daily lives. But in the end, Google Home could turn out to be a much more powerful device, and definitely not just an Echo clone.