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In the battle for the future of voice computers, Google is moving fast — but Amazon is still moving faster

January 22,2018 03:24

Matt Weinberger/Business Insider. Indeed, Google has made great strides in catching up with Alexa in a very short time. The first Amazon Echo, which introduced Alexa, dropped in 2014. Google Home was released in late 2016, and within a year, had ...and more »


Google's booth was hopping at CES 2018, with lines just to get in to many of its exhibits. This little city was designed to show off all the different types of things the Google Assistant can do. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Google was aggressively pushing its Assistant at CES 2018, with a marketing blitz and a party with a performance by John Legend.
Google announced a bunch of new, key partnerships with companies including LG, Sony, and Lenovo to integrate with the Google Assistant.
However, Amazon's Alexa, and its line of Echo smart speakers, still dominate the market, with no signs of slowing down.
At last week's Consumer Electronics Show, the Google Assistant was inescapable.
There was a "Hey Google" ad on the side of the Las Vegas monorail, a reference to the magic words for invoking voice commands with the Google Assistant. The search giant also had a massive booth with a slide, which infamously got flooded out during an unseasonably intense storm on the first day of the show.
Indoors, many, if not most, of the internet-connected appliance vendors at the show boasted "Works with Google Assistant" emblems on their booth, or some variation. And then there was Google's CES party where John Legend performed for a very exclusive audience.
Google had some big news at the show, too: It was partnering up with companies including Lenovo, LG, and Sony to launch a line of Google Assistant-powered "smart displays," which are basically just Google Home speakers with a screen. Plus, companies like Bose and LG are building Assistant into their headphones and TVs, respectively.
This was all clearly Google's way of striking back at Amazon Alexa, the market leader in this new category of voice-command devices.
Amazon was far and away the winner of last year's CES, with Alexa the star of many show-floor demonstrations. Google was at last year's CES, too, promoting its Google Home speakers. But all anybody wanted to talk about was Alexa.
At the 2018 show, Google Assistant grabbed the spotlight.
"It is too early to measure the impact of Google’s presence at CES, but they certainly made an impression," says Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz, who was at the show. 
People lined up for hours at CES 2018 to try out this Google Assistant-powered vending machine, which dispensed prizes just for trying out the technology. Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
Indeed, Google has made great strides in catching up with Alexa in a very short time. The first Amazon Echo, which introduced Alexa, dropped in 2014. Google Home was released in late 2016, and within a year, had established itself as the most meaningful opponent to Alexa. I, personally, prefer Google Assistant to Amazon Alexa in my everyday life.
Google's "smart displays" are a direct answer to the Amazon Echo Show and Echo Spot, the first-ever Alexa devices with screens. And all of those new partner product integrations make the Google Assistant way more competitive with Alexa, which used its head start to establish itself as a dominant standard in the smart home.
This is all fine, as far as it goes. But the problem for Google as it rushes to play catch-up: Amazon hasn't stood still.
First and foremost are the numbers; Amazon hints that Alexa products are outselling Google's. While Google says that it sold about 7 million Google Home speakers over the holiday season, Amazon said that it sold "tens of millions" of Alexa products over the same period. Without exact figures, it's hard to get a direct comparison, but the message is clear, and Google is lagging. 
A big reason for that success is that Amazon keeps iterating and releasing new products. Just last year, Amazon released an all-new Echo, the Echo Plus home hub, the fashion camera Echo Look, the Echo Show, the Echo Spot, and even Echo Buttons, simple Bluetooth game controllers for the Echo. 
Google, for comparison, released two new Home speakers, the $50 Mini and the $400 Max. And while Google claims the former is selling quite well, the latter is definitely more of a niche product for higher-end audiophiles (or wannabe DJs).
Those new Home products are good in their own right, but they're not as interesting as Amazon's Echo experiments. For instance, Amazon is playing around with new ways to interact with Alexa — the Echo Look camera helps you create a fashion look book for yourself; the Echo Plus streamlines the complicated process of adding smart home gear. Meanwhile, the Google Home Mini and Max are just variations on the same basic concept for a smart speaker that Amazon pioneered with the original Echo back in 2014.
Lots of companies were proudly promoting their Google Assistant integrations at CES 2018. Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
On the software side, both companies are getting better and at a fast rate. This is actually where Google shines, as its investments in artificial intelligence means that Google Home is getting better by the day at playing music, mapping a route, or even letting you know when a flight is cheap.
Gartner's Goertz lauds the progress Google has made with building out the Google Assistant ecosystem, but says there's still a ways to go, partnership-wise, to really catch up with Alexa.
Meanwhile, Amazon is making serious investments in turning Alexa into a platform. This year, as we previously reported, Amazon has big plans to start paying developers of the 30,000 Alexa "skills," or apps, which could turn Alexa into an economy and ecosystem all on its own.
Google hasn't quite gotten to that point with Assistant yet, and so developers could well feel like there's a bigger incentive to stick with Alexa. 
In short, Google is making serious inroads and has become the biggest roadblock to Amazon just completely running away with this young market. But Amazon is proving once again that it can move faster than its rivals. Google will have to pick up the pace if it wants to go beyond dominating CES, and into dominating the market.

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