Today, Google is showing off auto-translation on smart display speakers, letting you naturally talk to each other with the speaker acting as the translator automatically. It has announced integrations with dozens of well-known brands. It will put Google Assistant on millions more iPhones with a Trojan horse play: integrating it into Google Maps.
Google is going big. In an interview with The Verge, Manuel Bronstein, VP of product for Google Assistant, made the case that Google is building an entire ecosystem for Assistant that’s akin to the ecosystem it’s built for Android. It’s a platform play, basically, just like Alexa. And Google wants to ensure it’s everywhere.
Google needs to do a lot to justify its massive presence at CES this year, and so it is announcing a ton of stuff. There are new advanced features for Google Assistant, cute new gadgets that either feature it or work with it, and an aggressive new program to bring in more third-party companies. It’s not quite the 70 products that Amazon announced at its September Alexa event, but it’s close.
At least a dozen announcements
Though it won’t grab as many headlines as some of the other announcements, the most important thing Google is talking about today is Google Assistant Connect, a catch-all term for a set of capabilities for third-party developers. It is the clearest sign yet that Google understands it’s behind on tools: Amazon makes it nearly plug-and-play for companies to build Alexa compatibility into their products. You can read more about it, and the new E Ink display it enables, here.
It will be some time before we see any results from Google Assistant Connect, but the rest of the products and features Google is announcing will have a more immediate impact. There’s a neat little alarm clock with Assistant, made by Lenovo. It’s essentially a tiny version of the Google Home Hub, and, thankfully, it also doesn’t have a camera, so you’re more likely to be willing to put it in your bedroom.
But there’s a lot more. Some of its third-party integrations include;
There are also a bunch of new software features, including:
Yes, it’s a lot.
The new Interpreter mode is the splashiest of those software features, by far. It’s a new auto-translation feature for the Google Home Hub, and it will be piloted at hotel desks. Google has tried to make auto-translation in its Pixel Buds before, but on the Hub, it makes a bit more sense. It works more naturally with fewer button presses, and we have a full hands-on with it here.
Google is going so big at CES that it has even created an It’s a Small World–style ride (a literal ride) at its booth. Here’s the 360-degree marketing video for it:
Google Assistant as a platform
Why is Google doing so much at CES this year? Partly because it was so successful with its massive presence last year, says Bronstein. “It’s an event where all of the major consumer electronics players are there,” he says. “It provides the opportunity to re-engage and restate our commitment to the industry.”
So Google wants to turn Assistant into a full-fledged platform. It’s pretty easy to argue about what constitutes a computing “platform,” but by any reasonable metric, Assistant is there. The install base for Assistant is large enough. Yesterday, Google announced that it expected to hit a billion devices with Assistant by the end of the month. And though Google doesn’t quite have the breadth of devices that Alexa does, it’s catching up: 10,000 different devices work with Assistant now, made by over 1,000 brands.
Going so big and splashy at CES is partly a way for Google to play catch-up with getting third-party companies on board. Unlike Amazon, Google has taken a more hands-on approach with partners, which has inevitably slowed things down a bit. Bronstein argues that it’s not about lock-in or preciousness, but caring about the final product. “If you see any carefulness,” he says, “it’s about consistency and great user experience. It’s not about anything else. We do care about scale.”
“We want to make it extremely easy for partners to integrate the product,” Bronstein says. “We also want to make sure that we deliver an amazing consumer experience.” There’s a potential conflict between those two goals, and compared to Amazon, Google appears to be paying more attention to the latter than the former.
Bronstein believes Google is primed to really begin increasing the number of devices that include or work with Assistant more quickly now. At the same time, Bronstein thinks that just comparing raw numbers isn’t the right way to think about it. “It’s not about how many skills or how many devices or whatever,” he argues. “We’re already operating at a scale, [and] the coverage is there.”
But how quickly that growth is happening is still an open question. Take one of the nicest new Assistant features Google is announcing: flight check-in with Assistant. When it comes time to check in, you’ll simply be able to tap a button on your lock screen, and you’ll run through all of those pre-flight baggage check-in and security questions right in Google’s interface. At the end, you’ll have a boarding pass you can access quickly from Assistant and the lock screen.
That’s all well and good, but it’s only a (pardon the pun) pilot program with United for domestic flights. Compare that to Wallet boarding passes on the iPhone, which are nearly ubiquitous.
Another curious delay: Google Assistant on Sonos. Google and Sonos are recommitting to releasing it this year — noting that it’ll be available on the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, and older speakers will be updated to “work with” Assistant.
Sonos integration was supposed to be last year, and though Bronstein didn’t specifically explain the delay, he did present the problem in an interesting context. “Whether a device will have a switchable assistant or not is something that the entire ecosystem is defining right now,” he says. I think the key word there is “switchable.” Where Amazon is happy to let multiple assistants stay active on a single device, Google apparently wants them to be “switchable.”
The Trojan horse: Assistant on iPhones via Google Maps
If you’re looking for a place where Google is going to lean into its strengths against Alexa, look no further than the car. It’s one of Amazon’s main targets for 2019, but Google has a significant advantage: people are already used to using their phones for navigation in the car.
Beyond Android Auto, partners like Anker are making little lighter plug-ins that work with Google Assistant. A bigger deal, though, is that Google is going to bake Google Assistant into Google Maps. It may not be able to convince iPhone users to install the Google Assistant app, but it has a huge install base for Maps. Google says that Assistant in Maps will let you “share your ETA with friends and family, reply to text messages, play music and podcasts, and get information hands free.”
What’s next for Google Assistant? We’ll get more information about it coming to feature phones at Mobile World Congress this February. More importantly, Google says it’s committed to ensuring it works more elegantly with more devices, improving the setup process and the overall user experience. But like Amazon’s Dave Limp, Bronstein won’t cop to being in the middle of a platform war, per se. “It’s important to say this will not be a winner-take-all,” he argues.
Whether you think it’s a platform war or not, Google is definitely fighting on a dozen different fronts.