by Bill & Phil

Over a year ago when Amazon introduced the Amazon Echo device it was a surprise hit. We quickly bought it and drug it around with us to demonstrate at all of our Bill & Phil Show presentations.The feedback we got from all quarters was that this little digital assistant/music player/babysitter/etc was incredibly popular both at home and in the office. Google (and others) must have heard the same rave reviews that we did; because they quickly went to work on a competitor. Then in the fall of 2016 as Google was unveiling their first branded smartphone, the Pixel; they also introduced their own digital assistant device, Google Home. Of course, we snatched one up (actually two) immediately.

So what distinguishes Google Home from Amazon Echo?  For starters, it’s less expensive ($129 compared to $179). It is a little more compact and comes in different color combinations which might make it blend in more aesthetically in a home setting. But the functionality is basically the same as Echo with some added twists. What Home (and Echo) does is sit on your counter at home or on your desk in the office, connect to your wifi network, and wait for you to tell it what to do. Home will “wake up” when you say “Ok Google” and will then respond to your voice command. While we couldn’t get it to attend a seminar for us or write a brief, it certainly does more entertaining things well. Things like playing music from our Spotify account, giving news briefs, answering trivia questions, giving stock quotes, etc. The device itself is a speaker through which it communicates back with you. The speaker is of decent quality; but it’s not going to take the place of high quality Bluetooth or wifi speakers, like you might find in a Sonos system.

The real evolution of these digital assistant devices is through their integration with other internet-connected devices, such as smart home devices. For example, via voice command we are able to tell Google Home to set our thermostat at a certain level, turn on the lights, dim the lights, turn on a sprinkler, even brew a pot of coffee. And unlike some human assistants, Google Home follows through without a peep of protest. They should have named this device Nirvana.

The Google connection is what really sets the Home device apart. Because of Google’s vast database of general knowledge (from their universally popular search engine), we are able to ask, or “google”, just about anything on any subject and Google Home will have an answer. It’s sort of like having a digital encyclopedia that you can quiz with oral questions.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Home is it’s connectivity with video and audio devices that have Google’s Chromecast installed. For example, without touching a keyboard or remote, we can vocally instruct Home to play a YouTube video on a big TV screen that has Chromecast installed on it; and, like magic, it happens. Similarly we can instruct Home to play a particular style of music on our Chromecast-enable audio speakers in the next room. We love to use this functionality to amaze visitors to the office and persuade them we do indeed have magical powers. But the magic is in the Google Home technology.

Supposedly the artificial intelligence technology behind the Home’s speech recognition and response system, dubbed Google Assistant, is superior to other systems. The only real evidence that we could discern is that in certain circumstances you can ask Home follow-up questions and it will answer in context of the original question. For example, we can ask Home “Ok Google, how late is Martin’s BBQ open” and Home will respond with the hours of operation for that day. We then follow up with “Ok Google, where is it located?”  Home responds with the correct address for the restaurant without us having to rename the restaurant. This contextual awareness is unique to the Google Home system; but, honestly, we’re not sure how much we even use it.

There are some tricks that the Amazon Echo can do that Home cannot. For example, as of this writing, when you ask Google Home to add an appointment to your calendar, she responds that she can’t add appointments to your calendar yet. So apparently this feature will be added to Home in the future; but we are able to add calendar events just fine using Echo. Also, since Echo has been on the market longer than Home, there are quite a bit more integrations (or skills as Amazon calls them) that Echo has over Home. We expect Home will quickly catch up, particularly as sales of the cheaper Home device climb.

Clearly the market for these digital assistants is hot as other companies are rumored to be coming up with their own versions. Of course, these are just new iterations of technology that most of us have been using for a while in Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Android’s Google Now. But Echo and Home have expanded the functionality of these voice recognition systems to be more “conversational” and to provide connection to more objects that we use in our everyday lives. We believe that these virtual digital assistants will continue to evolve beyond primarily entertainment devices and will become more integrated with how we work in and out of the office. We don’t care if you call our assistant Alexa, Google, or Helga; we are just thrilled that this assistant will listen to us hours on end and never complain, at least yet.

We’re off to the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show where we’ll see a lot of new gadgets that we can’t wait to tell you about.

-Bill & Phil