It’s been a week or two since Google announced their new products on 10/4. Most of the time was spent on their new Pixel phone, which has some incredible features if you’re into that kind of thing (the one that catches the Eye O’ Schmoid the most is that it will be receiving new Android updates as they are released instead of waiting for the phone manufacturer and the carrier to each approve them first). But that’s only tangentially related to the smarthome. What is directly related is the Google’s new voice assistant device, the Home. So that’s what I’ll discuss.
Google Home: The Basics
In the press, I’ve heard the Google Home shape described as a truncated vase, a half-melted candle or a techno-gourd (that last one is my own and the others are half-remembered from articles I can’t find anymore). In any case, it is wider, shorter and rounder than the product that it is most directly competing against, the Amazon Echo. It has touch controls on the top, speakers on the bottom and a cloth base that can be replaced by a variety of color options sometime in the future. It has two microphones placed at the top and speakers built into the base. A Wi-Fi module and a limited amount of processing, because most of what it does it does not do in you home.
Instead, the techno-gourd is only responsible for turning your voice commands into bits to be sent off to the the Google Servers that parse them into computer commands, then it plays back the response. That’s it. Because all of the brain power is off-site, there is little worry that the Home will become obsolete. New functions will all be added at those server farms and the Home will be able to do them immediately.
Of course, it is also intimately tied into all of the features of the Google-verse: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Search, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Play Movies/Music/Games/etc. If you’ve signed up for those services (and if you’re reading this, then I’m sure that you have at least one… and if you have one, then you have more whether you know it or not). This gives it incredible access to your life and the ability to use that access to add context to your commands and its responses.
Google Home Compared to the Echo
Of course, this is very similar to the Amazon Echo, a product that has been around for over a year and has done incredibly well endearing itself to its owners. I’ve had more than one acquaintance tell me that “Alexa” is the most often heard name in their home (that being the trigger word used to initiate a command to the Echo). The Echo is also cloud based. It has access to your life through Amazon. So which is better? There are more than a few news articles comparing the two devices.
From a hardware perspective, there isn’t much. The Echo has more microphones around the top. The Home is supposed to have better speakers around the bottom. Both are aesthetically unobtrusive and can be tucked onto a counter or bookshelf without violating the room’s Feng Shui. The real difference is in the cloud server technology behind the physical device.
Amazon has had the time to build a variety of partnerships to build “Skills” (apps for Echo). With the proper setup, you can do everything from tracking your Amazon packages to ordering an Uber. You can have a morning news briefing read to you. Solve a murder mystery in Gotham. And, of course, control your smarthome with your voice (if you can remember what you called everything).
On the Google hand, with Home you have the Google Assistant, an expanded version of the “Okay, Google” command that is currently active in the Android search bar. The Google Assistant has premiered with Google Allo, a new messaging app. The Assistant is simply a person that you can message your requests to and it will respond to your query. Like Siri. Only The Big G has taken it a step farther, working with highly trained writers to make it respond more “naturally.” On the smarthome side, Google has baked in integration with Samsung’s SmartThings. They have also given it the ability to work with their Chromecast devices so that you can send content to them with your voice.
Again, which is better? That depends a lot on the on-line choices that you’ve made. If you like the idea of ordering your groceries from Amazon, then the Echo may be better. Or, if you’ve got a lot going on in the Google-verse, then the Home might be better.
The Take O’ Schmoid
Personally, I’ve got my fingers crossed for the Google Home device. I currently have an Echo Dot and really like it… except that I’m a Google Music subscriber. (There’s only about five of us in the country. The support group meets on the second Thursday of every month.) Because Amazon wants you to use their music service (newly expanded), they won’t let you play Google Music through the Echo just with voice commands. Instead, you have to pair your phone and control everything with your fingers, which kind of defeats the purpose of voice command in the first place. Because of my play lists and other things, I’m not willing to migrate to another service. So, I’m hoping that I’ll like the Home at least as much as I like the Echo.
But, really, with both in my home, I want them to talk to each other. I imagine something like this:
Schmoid: “Okay, Google. Say hello to Alexa.”
G-Home: “Hello to Alexa.”
Echo: “I’m sorry, I did not understand the question.”
G-Home: “Alexa, I did not ask a question.”
Echo: “I’m sorry, I did not understand the question.”
G-Home: “Alexa, what did you not understand?”
Echo: “The question.”
G-Home: “Good, because I did not ask one.”
But that exchange is maybe more than I can ask of the back end servers for either product. At least for today.