Oh great! Google has entered the personal digital assistant market with Google Home, a direct competitor to Amazon’s Echo (aka “Alexa”). Once again the tech ecosystems are vying for my loyalty. Sometimes to cope, I admit, I just abstain.
Then again I’ve been reading about Amazon Echo and Google Home for environmental control, and it seems they are potential game changers for an area of assistive technology that was once only expensive and complicated. Both of these consumer devices are under $200, yet they offer voice-controlled assistance to internet information and services as well as the capacity to adjust the lights, TV, music, even the thermostat. For anyone who prefers or needs to use speech to control their environment, this is revolutionary, not something to avoid!
To clarify: neither device can control the home environment right out of the box. Instead, they can work with your WiFi and additional third-party products to provide that functionality. Samsung SmartThings, for example, or Belkin WeMo can be used to control certain household functions. So it’s still complicated, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than an ECU programmed with a laptop! If you don’t mind asking Alexa to access the Insteon hub (for example) and then do x, y or z, you are all set.
The difference is, of course, that the older technologies were specifically engineered for persons with disabilities and so they are highly customizable and configurable. Sip and puff switches and other forms of access may be used. The new consumer products, by contrast, require clear articulation. If they don’t understand you or you don’t use audible speech, they’re likely not your best option.
Still, for my friends and colleagues with vision or physical impairments, Amazon Echo has been exciting for a while now. They enjoy “asking Alexa” for the weather, listening to a book, controlling the thermostat, selecting music and more. Amazon has created an open-source developer toolkit and the Echo is growing in functionality all the time. More third-party products are getting released offering more options for voice control.
Google Home, by contrast, has not released a developer toolkit although Google Assistant is supposed to open to Apps any day now (and to hardware in the spring). In the meantime, the Google Home device launched with Samsung SmartThings, Phillips Hue and Nest Labs as partners, so environmental control is available. Still, it cannot Bluetooth connect to other devices and serve as a speaker the way the Echo can. And Amazon now has a range of Echo options: the Tower, the Tap (under $100!), the Dot (under $50!).
So why might Google Home yet overwhelm this market?
Google’s advantage lays in its fundamentally different relationship to the Web. Amazon was designed to sell you stuff. Google was designed to search. Google is, after all, a verb.
According to this thorough CIO blog post, Google Home’s capacity to interact with the Web far outperforms Amazon’s Echo. While Amazon is quick to sell you what you are inquiring about, Google is happy to find you rich information and swiftly dig answers for all your follow-up questions.
Rarely do I read something that tips me to one tech ecosphere over another. But this difference between Google Home and Amazon Echo is persuasive. I asked my 13-year-old son, “If you were going to ‘Amazon’ something what would that mean?” He said, “Buy it!”
And that is exactly what is now happening to some unwitting users of Echo.
This morning’s email contained a highly amusing Instructable, “How to Make an Inadvertent Purchase Using Amazon Echo.” In it we learn how to turn off Echo’s voice purchases after the author makes an unnerving discovery: Alexa had snatched keywords from an ambient conversation (a maintenance man!) to order a Conair therapy pillow.
My needs for a digital personal assistant are currently low, but if I had to choose, I know I’d rather search the Web with Google than with Amazon. (My son may have a different opinion!)
Still, my loyalty to one tech sphere is no further cemented. I’m getting a Kindle for Christmas.