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Sundar Pichai makes the case for Google versus Alexa

Google’s CEO says voice search is just part of the bigger search puzzle — and that Google has some real advantages.

Pichai Sundararajan, known as Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google Inc. speaks during an event to introduce Google Pixel phone and other Google products on October 4, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  Ramin Talaie / Getty Images

Google has such a well-established lead in online search and artificial intelligence technology, it’s intuitive that the company will be competitive in voice search, too. But if Google can’t get its voice-enabled tools like Assistant into the hands of consumers, then people won’t be using Google’s voice search.

That was the concern of one analyst participating in Google parent company Alphabet’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday, asking about the company’s efforts to get its voice-based devices — such as its relatively new Google Home speaker — out in the marketplace.

On the call, RBC Capital analyst Mark Mahaney noted that while hardware may not be a big part of Google’s business today, it could be down the line — and if Google can’t get enough traction later on, that could become a challenge.

“It looks to me like Google devices are being outsold by ten to one, or something like that, in a lot of homes,” Mahaney said. (And beyond Amazon’s rival Echo speaker, we’d note that Apple’s Siri has been built into iPhones for half a decade.)

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s response, in essence: The voice-search competition is just beginning, and Google shouldn’t be counted out.

“We are really excited” about voice search, he said. “I think it’s a very natural way for users to interact.”

Google’s strategy, Pichai said, is to support voice search across different contexts, ranging from phones — where, we’d note, Google’s Android OS still dominates the global market — to homes, TVs and cars.

“We want Google to be there for users when they need it.”

Pichai said that Google Home’s first quarter on the market was “very strong” — without disclosing any shipment numbers — and reiterated that it was “very early days” for voice search.

What’s more, he said there was still a lot of work ahead to make voice search a great experience for users — and that Google’s “years of progress” in areas like natural language processing were an advantage.

“I feel very comfortable about how this will play out in the future.”

What about making money from voice search? That was the question from another analyst, J.P. Morgan’s Douglas Anmuth.

Short answer: It seems Google isn’t concerned with trying to squeeze revenue specifically from voice search in the near future.

Instead, Pichai said that voice search was just part of a bigger search “journey” for Google’s users — an “end-to-end thing” that also includes mobile searches and other contexts where Google already has ad products at work. If Google can drive more voice searches, that’s just more information that can go into its broader ecosystem.

“I see more opportunity than challenge when I think about voice search,” Pichai said.

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