Following Amazon Echo’s Alexa, the next digital butler comes to Germany this Tuesday with Google Home. Amazon is reacting in a predictable way.
The NDR satire program “extra 3” posted a nice video about life with voice assistants on YouTube.* Initially, the family is pleased that Alexa, Google Home, Cortana, Siri and Bixby make their lives easier, stating, “We don’t have to worry about anything anymore.” This lasts until the voice assistants begin to intrude upon conversations and dictate to the parents and children. It ends as satire must: ultimately, Alexa and Co. have taken control of the household. The family has easily adjusted to the new situation with the motto, “I can’t get rid of the spirits whom I called.”
This is not satire, but quite real: This Thursday, Google Home – with its installed digital butler, Google Assistant – comes to Germany. Amazon Echo, sold here since October 2016, was the beginningAmazon Echo; now, one can hear “Alexa, do this” and “Alexa, do that” being advertised everywhere. Its Google competitor listens for the signal word “OK, Google,” but one can also activate it with “Hey, Google.” Apart from that, the functions of the Amazon and Google devices are similar, with each system having special strengths. Google Home frankly admits this. When asked, “What do you think of Alexa?” Google Home answers, “Alexa is super reliable. She always delivers.” At the moment, Amazon is in a price war with Google. Amazon lowered the price of the Amazon Echo from 179 euros to 129 euros (approximately $211 to $152) in time for the launch of Google Home, which costs 149 euros (approximately $176).
Google Knows Its Users
Google Home especially benefits from the near inexhaustible knowledge of its search engine Google. This knowledge is not only limited to the billions of stored facts on the internet, but is also based on what the general public, particularly registered users, want to know from the web. No other internet firm can analyze more search requests than Google. Particularly, Android smartphone users and people who use the Google Chrome browser give the firm information on almost all areas of their lives, including appointment calendars, address books and geodata. Google does not even have to ask where you are before telling you where the nearest pharmacy is or how long it will take to get to work.
Additionally, Google has closely observed how people react to Alexa. Google Home is just half the size of Amazon Echo and is designed to conform almost unnoticeably to a home’s décor. In spite of its smaller size, the sound is passable. The loudspeaker does not need to replace a stereo system anyhow because songs can be streamed over Wi-Fi to the stereo system via Google Chromecast.
Before the Christmas retail season, Apple will presumably be a third large vendor with a digital butler. Apple wants to integrate its assistant system Siri into the so-called HomePods by then HomePods. Even Facebook, another internet giant that knows a lot about its users,is supposed to be working on a similar solution; however, the ecosystem of social networks is less extensive than that of Amazon, Google or Apple.
Google’s online Play Store, with its music and video offerings, is part of this ecosystem. These entertainment media are especially easy to stream on televisions or stereo systems with Chromecast sticks. For its launch in Germany, Google is cooperating with the video streaming service Netflix as well as Spotify, a music provider. For example, a brief voice command to Google Home is sufficient enough to play back Lana Del Rey’s new album or “Sons of Anarchy.” And naturally, Google has integrated its in-house video platform YouTube and Google albums into the assistant system; however, localization is apparently not yet finished. Google Home acknowledges the command “Show my photos on the living room TV” with “showing your photos on living room.” Otherwise, the sentence “Pardon me, I don’t know how I can help you, I’m still learning,” is heard relatively frequently.
However, users still have much to learn because systems like Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri will soon be dominant in smart homes. Increasingly, more household functions can be controlled using apps or voice command, which is even more comfortable for users. In our test, we could easily use a Philips Hue light controller to turn lights on or off or dim them to a pleasant degree in individual rooms. With Smart Home, an incredible business opportunity could summon many firms, because in the end the Smart Home functions all the better when Alexa, Google Home or HomePod is installed in every room, networking everything from the refrigerator to the heating system.
Information providers have demonstrated how important it is to jump on the assistant bandwagon early. Already, users have a choice of various different providers. German World Service is pre-installed in Google Home, followed by n-tv, Giga-Tech News, NDR, and Radio Hamburg, but other sources like “Daily News in 100 seconds,” “Bild” or T-Online can be added.*
Vague Statement about Data Privacy
What remains is data protection and privacy data privacy. In this regard, Google is comparatively transparent. Thus, it is clearly stated that commands following the keyword “OK, Google” are being recorded, not only those of the owner, but also those of guests who want to try out what Google Home can do. On the other hand, some of the other disclosures are kept so vague that they could mean anything. For example, in response to questions about where data are stored, Google succinctly states, “Google stores data about conversations on its servers, which reside in its data centers.” Google does not elucidate on whether the conversations are stored in Europe or in the U.S. Likewise, Google states, “First and foremost, we use data to make our services faster, smarter, and more useful to you.” This means everything and nothing. Nevertheless, Google warns users when installing the system that one’s own usage as well as the input of guests is being recorded. However, it is questionable whether users will later remember this warning. A regular repetition would be desirable. Preferably via voice command.
*Translator’s note: NDR refers to Norddeutscher Rundfunk, a public radio and television broadcaster in northern Germany. The other references are German media outlets.