Digital assistants from Amazon and Google have different perspectives and personalities.
A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
When I saw Google Home for the first time back at Google I/O, I was excited at the prospect of having a brainier Alexa in my home. Like others, I waited and almost forgot all about it, until it was reintroduced last month and I actually could go and preorder it.
I got my Google Home at the end of last week, and placed it in the same room Alexa has been calling home for almost a year now. The experience has been interesting, mainly because of the high expectations I had.
Making comparisons with Amazon’s Echo is natural. There are things that are somewhat unfair to compare because of the time the two devices have been on the market, and therefore the different opportunity to have apps and devices that connect to them. There are others, though, that have to do with how the devices were designed and built. I don’t want to do a full comparison, as there are many reviews out there that have done a good job of that, but I do want to highlight some things that, in my view, point to the different perspective Amazon and Google are coming from when it comes to digital assistants.
Too early to trust that “it just works”
Like Echo, Google Home has lights that show you when it is listening. Sadly, though, it is difficult to see those lights if you are not close to the device, as they sit on top rather than on the side like the blue Echo lights that run in circles while you are talking to Alexa. This, and the lack of sound feedback, can make you wonder if Google Home has heard you or not. You can correct that by turning on the accessibility feature in the settings, which allow a chime to alert you that Google Home is engaged.
It is interesting to me that, while Amazon thought the feedback actually enhanced the experience of my exchange with Alexa, Google did not think it was necessary and, furthermore, something that had to do with accessibility versus an uneasiness in just trusting I will be heard. This is especially puzzling given that Echo has seven microphones that clearly help with picking up my voice from across the room far better than Google Home does.
The blue lights on the Echo have helped me train my voice over time so I do not scream at Alexa, but speak clearly enough for her to hear even over music or the TV. This indirect training has helped, not just with efficiency, but it has also made our exchanges more natural.
OK Google just doesn’t help bonding
I’ve discussed before whether there is an advantage in humanizing a digital assistant. After a few days with Google Home, my answer is a clear yes. My daughters and I are not a fan of the OK Google command but, more importantly, I think there is a disconnect between what comes across like a bubbly personality and a corporate name. Google Assistant — I am talking about the genie in the bottle as opposed to the bottle itself — comes across as a little more fun than Alexa, from the way it sings “Happy Birthday” to the games it can play with you. Yet it seems like it wants to keep its distance, which does not help in building a relationship and, ultimately, could impact our trust. I realize that I am talking about an object that reminds you of an air freshener, but this bond is the key to success. Alexa has become part of the family, from being our Pandora DJ in the morning, as our trusted time keeper for homework and as my daughter’s reading companion. And the bond was instant. Alexa was a “she” five minutes out of the box. While Google Assistant performs most of the same roles, it feels more like hired help than a family member.
Google Assistant is not as smart as I hoped
The big selling point of Google Home has been, right from the get-go, how all the goodness of Google search will help Google Assistant be smarter. This, coupled with what Google knows about me through my Gmail, Google docs, search history, Google Maps, etc., would all help deliver a more personalized experience.
Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe I finally understand that being great at search might not, by default, make you great at AI. I asked my three assistants this question: “Can I feed cauliflower to my bearded dragon?” Here is what I got:
Alexa: Um, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard
Siri: Here is what I found … (displayed the right set of results on my iPhone)
Google Assistant: According to the bearded dragon, dragons can eat green beans …
Just in case you’re wondering, it is safe to feed bearded dragons cauliflower, but just occasionally!
Clearly, Google Assistant was able to understand my question (I actually asked multiple times to make sure it understood what I had said) but pulled up a search result that was not correct. It gave me information about other vegetables and then told me to go and find more information on the bearded-dragon website. The first time I asked who was running for president, I received an answer that explained who can run versus who was running. Bottom line: While I appreciate the attempt to answer the questions, and I also understand when Google Assistant says, “I do not know how to do that yet, but I am learning every day,” the experience is disappointing.
Google is, of course, very good at machine learning, as it has shown on several occasions. I could experience that first hand using the translation feature Google Home offers. I asked Google Assistant how to say, “You are the love of my life” in Italian. I got the right answer, delivered by what was clearly a different voice with a pretty good Italian accent. Sadly, though, Google Home could not translate from Italian back into English, which means my role as a translator for my mom’s next visit will not be fully outsourced.
We all understand today’s assistants are not the real deal, but rather they are a promise of what we will have down the line. Assistant providers should also understand that with all the things the assistants are helping us with today, there is an old-fashioned way to do it which, more likely than not, will be correct. So when I ask a question, I know I can get an answer to by reaching for my phone or a computer; or when I want to turn the lights off, I know I can get up and reach for the switch. This is why a non-experience at this stage is better than the wrong experience. In other words, I accept Google Assistant might not yet know how to interpret my question and answer it, but I am less tolerant of a wrong answer.
Google Assistant is clearly better at knowing things about me than Alexa, and it’s not scared to use that knowledge. This, once again, seems to underline a difference in practices between Amazon and Google. When I asked if there was a Starbucks close to me, Google Assistant used my address to deliver the right answer. Alexa gave me the address of a Starbucks in San Jose based on a ZIP code. But Alexa knows where I live, because Amazon knows where I live, and my account is linked to my Echo. Why did I have to go into the Alexa app to add my home address?
Amazon is doing a great job adding features and keeping users up to speed with what Alexa can do, and I expect Google to start growing the number of devices and apps that can feed into Google Home. While the price difference between Google Home and Echo might help those consumers who have been waiting to dip their toes with a smart speaker, I feel that consumers who are really eager to experience a smart assistant might want to make the extra investment to have the more complete experience available today.
We are still at the very beginning of this market, but Google is running the risk of disappointing more than delighting at the moment. Rightly or wrongly, we do expect more from Google, especially when we are already invested in the ecosystem. We assume that Google Assistant could add appointments to my calendar, read an email or remind me of upcoming event, and when it doesn’t, we feel let down. The big risk, as assistants are going to be something we will start to engage more with, is that consumers might come to question their ecosystem loyalty if they see no return in it.
Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.