Google’s new household gadget is all about search

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Google has long been the king of search, building its empire by answering questions, giving directions and helping people settle arguments with its vast database of facts.

But as more people search using their voice — verbally asking questions to Apple’s Siri or Amazon Echo’s Alexa — instead of typing queries into their phones or laptops, the tech giant risks ceding some of that dominance.

To future-proof itself from competitors, the Mountain View, Calif., tech firm announced Tuesday a new slate of electronic devices that support voice search and come pre-installed with Google Assistant, the company’s artificial intelligence bot that can do a wide variety of things, including answering queries and making restaurant reservations.


“[Google Assistant] will be a two-way conversation, a natural dialogue between our users and Google,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive. “It will be universal, available when users need it to help them. Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user.”

To that end, Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, also rolled out its answer to the Amazon Echo — a cylindrical household gadget called Google Home.

Google is positioning the device as the ultimate virtual home assistant, with the ability to answer spoken queries, play music from YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, use voice controls for connected home devices from the Google-owned Nest, Samsung and Phillips, and even control Netflix.

Just say “OK, Google” in its presence and it’s at your service.

Answering questions plays to Google’s strengths, but hardware has generally been a weakness for the company. Its Nexus smartphones lagged behind the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy phones, and its entry into augmented reality via the face-mounted Google Glass was a much-mocked flop.

This latest push into hardware is less about wanting to compete as a hardware maker, according to analysts, and more about being where users are when they’re asking questions.

“Google wants to showcase that it will continue to be a relevant platform to access information on whatever connected device consumers use moving forward,” said Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst at research firm Forrester.


“Search is increasingly taking place in many more places, via many more devices and through new interfaces,” Husson said, so to stay relevant in the long run, Google is finding ways to embed Google Assistant into people’s lives.

Rick Osterloh, who heads Google’s hardware division, said Tuesday at the company’s San Francisco product event that his company sees its products sitting at “the intersection of hardware and software, with artificial intelligence at the center.”

“Building hardware and software together … allows Google to be helpful to people wherever they need us, no matter the context or form factor,” he said.

The hardware, then, is really an means to an end.

That may explain why Google is undercutting its biggest competitor on price: Google Home is available for pre-order for $129, $50 less than the Amazon Echo.

The Amazon Echo can perform many of the same functions: It plays music, controls other devices and enables users to search with their voice. It alone lets users speak to place orders on Amazon, hail Uber rides by voice and hear Amazon Kindle books read aloud by AI bot Alexa.

That strong e-commerce bent has helped Amazon convince customers of the gadget’s utility. But the fact that users regularly ask Echo factual questions suggests Google may have a compelling case for its product as well.


“The key thing for Google is getting the data on the questions people are asking and the needs they have,” said Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. “Google’s model is ‘We connect you to everything, we’re the funnel, so if you want something, ask Google how to get it done.’ That’s what they want.”

At its core, Google is in the advertising business and it has built its wealth studying user activity and selling ads based on the data it collects. The more time people spend interacting inside the Google ecosystem, whether it’s on their phones, in their homes, or on their laptops, the stronger Google’s business becomes.

While Siri and the Amazon Echo may have had a head start, Quint believes the market for voice-controlled devices and voice search is nascent enough that Google can still establish itself as the voice search of choice.

“By getting in now, they have a chance to be a leader on the content side,” Quint said, “which is a much more natural play for Google.”

Twitter: @traceylien



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