Google Home's intelligence is accelerating fast, but it's still barely evolved. At this year's I/O conference, Google announced its smart speaker will soon become more capable with notifications and hands-free calling. If that sounds familiar, it's because Amazon's Echo just learned some very similar tricks, and you can expect a lot more tit-for-tat in the smart home war as more players get involved.
But Suveer Kothari, vice president of Google hardware, says Google is conscious that it must tread carefully through our front doors. Home is a guest we can kick out at any moment, and we certainly won't feel guilty for it. That's why, when Google Home started spouting out adverts for Beauty and the Beast earlier this year, people were justifiably pissed off. Google realized it had made a big no-no.
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If Google Home, Echo and Apple's inevitable Siri speaker are to find a spot in our living rooms, they can't risk being a pest. Take the new notifications. When announced, our immediate question was, "How long before this becomes really annoying?". Kothari tells us that Google is not going to include third-party services for the time being for this very reason. "Right now we're just focused on very limited use cases, because we want to be very thoughtful about how much we interrupt people's experiences in the home."
The smart home wasn't really a thing until voice came along
So to start with, you'll hear notifications telling you if a flight is delayed, or that traffic that day is bad, or reminders you've set (yes, reminders are finally coming to Home later this year). These are the types of things you may be used to seeing in Google Now.
Kothari says the team is also working to get all of Google's devices working seamlessly together, so when you swipe away a notification on your phone, it would vanish on Home - and vice versa. "We can make it more contextually useful."
Hands-free calling is another example where Google is trying not to be contentious about sharing our homes. Alexa's calling feature lets you make and receive phone and message other Alexa devices, including phones. It was quickly pointed out that you couldn't actually block people. Google isn't allowing incoming calls at all with Home, and for the same reason as before: "It's kind of intrusive to have a shared device in the home and have incoming calls, so we're really focused on outgoing... We're being very cautious and thoughtful about how we launch some of these things."
Kothari says he thinks voice is "the first really natural computing interface", which is why he expects that people of an older age will use smart home speakers more and more. "The reality is that smart home wasn't really a thing until voice came along because it reduced that friction point, and I think we always knew that.
"If you think of computers and phones, they've all required you to learn something, but speaking to a device is just like speaking to a person. We're not quite there yet; it's going to take a long time for us to be just like talking to a person."
Voice might be the future of input, but not necessarily for output. Amazon recently stuck a screen on the Echo for the Echo Show, which was criticized by some as a small step backwards from a bold, voice-filled future. The cynical view might be that this is Amazon's way of pushing Echo users to its store (and there may be some truth to that), but Amazon also doesn't have a smartphone platform in the hands of millions of people, while Google does. "If you want to know the weather [on a speaker] that's great," says Kothari, "but if you want to see the weather for five days then it's easier to do it on the TV." Or a phone, perhaps.
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One of Home's advantages over Alexa is that its third-party service integrations - the equivalent of Echo's Skills - are automatically activated the moment they're published. The downside to this is that it can be hard for people to know what Home can actually do, and it doesn't help that the list of these 'Actions' are currently buried in a far-off corner of the app. Kothari agrees that Google needs to do more to guide users here, and says an update will be rolling out for the app that will spotlight the services that work with Home.
There's also one more thing we've been dying to ask: Will Google ever give its Assistant a proper name? Apple has Siri. Amazon has Alexa. But "Google Assistant" doesn't quite have the same friendly ring. Kothari says the name is simply "Google" and it's here to stay. "This is the manifestation of Google and how we expect Google to evolve in the future. It's about providing useful information and getting people to what they need to do. It's kind of been our mission for the past 17 years."
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