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Google to Introduce the Amazon Echo, Smarter Home

Google will introduce its much-anticipated entry into the voice-activated home device market on Wednesday, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Named Google Home, the device is a virtual agent that answers simple questions and carries out basic tasks. It is to be announced at Google’s annual developers’ conference in Silicon Valley.

Google Home will come to market in the fall — a long time away, given the speed of technology, but Google needed to plant a stake in the ground now. The device will compete with Amazon’s Echo, which was introduced less than two years ago. Amazon has already sold an estimated three million units.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

Virtual agents powered by artificial intelligence are one of the major new battlegrounds for consumer technology. Apple’s Siri, released in October 2011, drew widespread attention but it was the Echo that, after mixed initial reviews, has become a genuine consumer application.

It’s the newly rebranded “Google assistant,” which builds on the company’s already successful Google Now software.

Viewed through this lens, it’s actually Google that’s the incumbent here, with years and years of experience developing industry-leading voice recognition, natural language understanding, and conversational search technology. What Amazon found with the Echo was really just a fresh use case for the type of software that Google has been building all along.

As a result, Google Home will enjoy two big advantages over the Echo right from the beginning. First, the virtual assistant that lives inside it (or, more precisely, that resides in Google’s server cloud), will be essentially the same one that already lives inside some 1.5 billion people’s Android devices. As a result, it will connect directly and seamlessly to the many Google services that people know and use, like Google Maps, Gmail, and Google calendar.

Second, Google assistant is likely to be far more intelligent than Alexa, in the sense that it will be better at both understanding your queries and answering them. Ask Alexa a question about the world, and it will recite an answer straight from Wikipedia, one of a very limited number of information sources to which it has access. Ask Google assistant a question about the world, and it will tap into all of the knowledge and power of Google search. Not only that, but it will draw on Google’s state-of-the-art “conversational search” technology, which intuits not only the denotative meaning of a given query, but some of the conversational context that surrounds it.

So, as Pichai demonstrated, Google assistant will not only answer the question, “What is Draymond Green’s jersey number?”, but if you then ask it, “Where did he go to college?”, it will recognize that “he” refers to Green and will answer that question too. Alexa simply can’t do that yet. Which is why Pichai was not exaggerating when he bragged that Google assistant will boast capabilities “far beyond what other assistants can do.”

None of this is to say that Amazon Echo or Google Home is the better device, mostly because we can’t know that, because again, Google Home doesn’t yet exist. It’s fascinating, exciting, even, to see a brand new device category finally get some healthy competition. Especially when both parties have such different strengths to call on.

Better still? This is just the beginning. More products in this space means voice assistants will get smarter, designs will become more innovative, more parties will enter the fray. And this innovation isn’t restricted to any one device.

“At Amazon, Alexa is making its way to other devices, now including some of the Fire TV devices, and with Google this is part of a broader rollout of its new Assistant strategy,” says Dawson, who also invokes the chamfered elephant in the room. “Apple obviously already has Siri, which exists on iOS devices and Apple TV today, but could easily be extended to other devices in future too.”

Sure, this will lead to all kinds of fragmentation headaches and walled gardens and the most annoying inconveniences of mega-corporations not playing nice. But before things get too entrenched, it’ll also lead to some pretty great experiences. In fact, it already has.