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Echo and Home are endpoints, not the endgame

Amazon is pursuing the same vision as Google — that of a virtual assistant that’s truly virtual, inhabiting all the different devices we interact with throughout the day.

Google Hosts Its Annual I/O Developers Conference
VP of product management Mario Queiroz introduced the Google Home smart speaker last week. 
Justin Sullivan / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Last week, Google announced its answer to Amazon’s Echo home speaker product, which will be known simply as Home. But it also announced what it called "the Google assistant," which will operate both on the Home device and in a variety of other products.

These announcements, and some recent news from Amazon, highlight the fact that these devices, while important, are merely examples of the endpoints that will be part of a broader picture, and not the endgame in and of themselves. That understanding is important for seeing these announcements in the proper context, and figuring out where this technology goes from here.

Home is a new endpoint for old services

The key thing to understand about both Home and the Google assistant is that they’re new instantiations of old tricks, to a great extent. One of the big challenges of Google’s efforts in this area to date is that they’ve been disjointed and hard to refer to in a holistic fashion. Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa, but Google has only had Google Now, Google voice search, and the "OK Google" function on certain devices, along with plain old Google search on the web or inside of apps or widgets.

One of these things, to put it simply, was not like the others. What’s good about the Google assistant branding (though not necessarily the strange use of a lowercase "a") is that it starts to put a name to this collection of functionalities. That, in turn, should allow users to begin to grasp that these things are part of a coherent whole, and not just islands of functions floating in a Google sea.

What makes Google's assistant powerful is precisely that it doesn’t live in any single device, but exists in the cloud and becomes available to users through a variety of devices.

What Home does is give this new assistant a physical embodiment. That should allow users to more easily grasp the concept of what the assistant does and what functionality lives within it. What’s strange, then, is it appears that the assistant will take its first bow as part of the Allo messaging app, also announced at Google's I/O developers conference, and not within the Home device. Chances are that it's simply a matter of timing driven by the relative development cycles of hardware and software. But it means the assistant will be somewhat buried at first and, quite possibly, in a software product few people will use (but that’s a topic for another post).

The key thing is that the assistant is separate from the Home device ,and that’s actually a good thing. Though Home will perhaps be its best example, what makes the assistant powerful is precisely that it doesn’t live in any single device but exists in the cloud and becomes available to users through a variety of devices. That’s important because we won’t be carrying our Google Home devices with us everywhere we go. Rather, we’ll use our smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, computers and other devices throughout the day, and the Google assistant will be most useful as it follows us around, building a profile on us from interacting with it many times during the course of the day.

Amazon's vision for Alexa is also expansive

In this context, it’s worth thinking about what’s been happening recently with Alexa, too. It started out as functionality within a single product, the Echo, but it’s clear that Amazon’s vision for it is more expansive than that. Not only has Amazon recently introduced two other dedicated hardware products that provide Echo-like functionality in the form of the Dot and Tap, but it’s started putting the core smarts into existing devices as well. The Fire TV box and Stick have been getting Alexa features recently, and there are rumors that a forthcoming Fire tablet might also feature Alexa prominently. In this way, Amazon is ultimately pursuing the same vision as Google — that of a virtual assistant that’s truly virtual, inhabiting all the different devices we interact with throughout the day.

Amazon is ultimately pursuing the same vision as Google — that of a virtual assistant that’s truly virtual, inhabiting all the different devices we interact with throughout the day.

Amazon’s biggest challenge is it hasn’t provided those omnipresent devices to most of its users. Yes, it has gained a certain amount of market share with its tablets and TV devices, but its smartphone effort failed spectacularly. As such, it remains absent on the most omnipresent device of all.

It’s likely that a standalone version of the Alexa app for iOS and Android will appear eventually but, just as the Google and Cortana apps for iOS are inherently second-class citizens to Siri, Amazon will likely never match its success in the home in more mobile scenarios.

It’s easy to be blinded by Amazon’s success with the Echo, but the reality is that its broader virtual assistant strategy will remain handicapped until it solves this problem. It has overcome that problem in part by majoring less on knowing everything about you than on playing nice with the services that already do, whether that’s third-party calendars, music apps like Pandora and Spotify, or your smart home gear. But that’s still a step away from knowing you the way a true assistant does. Google has an advantage here, and it’s one it would do well to play up.

Apple has the components, but not the home device

Apple, of course, is coming at all this from the opposite end of the spectrum from Amazon. It does provide the omnipresent smartphone, and to hundreds of millions of people at that. Its virtual assistant, Siri, is on all those devices and more in the form of iPads and it has recently added Siri to the Apple TV, too. But as long as the Apple TV requires a screen to perform most of its functions, it can’t truly compete with an always-on device in the home.

To be sure, Apple’s vision is one of personal devices, and one possible solution is that everyone who needs to interact with such an assistant simply uses their own iPhone or iPad. But many people don’t always have these devices within arm’s reach (or within the sound of their voice), and Apple Watches aren’t yet ubiquitous enough to make up the difference. Does Apple, too, need a home speaker device in the vein of Echo and Home to remain competitive and fill in this gap in its coverage? The evidence it does is getting stronger all the time.

User profiles and shared devices

Perhaps the toughest challenge ahead for all three companies is how to manage individual user profiles on what will inherently be shared devices. That applies to the Home and Echo, of course, but also to the Apple TV and, to some extent, to tablets. Google made a point of talking in its I/O keynote about how your Home and the Google assistant would (with your permission, of course) get to know you over time, and therefore get better at their jobs. But that raises the question of who "you" is in this context. Is it the person who set the device up? Is it whoever happens to be asking it questions at any given time? Is it some aggregated profile based on all the members of the household? There are lots more questions than answers for me at this point about how Home (and other similar devices) will resolve all these issues over time.

Does Apple need a home speaker device in the vein of Echo and Home to remain competitive and fill in this gap in its coverage?

Siri on the Apple TV deals with this by being utterly impersonal — it provides the same answers to everyone rather than attempting to personalize itself based on who’s asking the questions, and it deliberately knows nothing about the user. But if Google wants to make its learning a differentiator, it needs to figure out how to tell the difference between users and share only the right information with the right members of the household.

TV box and service creators have long wrestled with this issue, and user profiles have usually been the answer proposed, although it rarely works all that well in practice. People hate manually switching profiles, so the solution usually has to be smart enough to tell which user it’s engaging with automatically and respond accordingly. That may require voice recognition, some sort of detection of nearby devices, or perhaps a different trigger phrase for each user. I’m not sure any of this is going to be ready by the time Home launches, but it’s something Google needs to be thinking about. It’s also an area where Amazon falls short with the Echo — it doesn’t do well with multiple calendars, for example, which is odd for a device that’s explicitly designed to support households and not individuals.

More endpoints to come

I started this piece by saying these home devices will be endpoints, but not the endgame. Let me return to that. Yes, these are the newest endpoints in this broader mission of providing intelligent assistants to respond to our needs in a variety of situations. But they won’t be the last — smartwatches obviously have a role here, too, but then so do cars, future wearables, and many other devices not yet conceived of.

What makes these assistants most useful is they will move through our lives with us on our different devices. That in turn will require either a greater willingness by users to commit to single-vendor device portfolios, or by vendors to take their applications cross-platform. History suggests that Apple will likely try the former route, while Google and Amazon will probably favor the latter. But this will only get more challenging as the variety of devices on which personal assistants live continues to proliferate.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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