- On Wednesday, Google is expected to announce a smorgasbord of new hardware that will have its Google Assistant technology built in.
- For its part, Amazon last week launched a slew of new products that incorporate its rival Alexa agent.
- The battle between Assistant and Alexa is part of a wider war between Google and Amazon.
Every new era of computing has had its hallmark rivalry.
IBM versus Digital. Apple versus IBM. Mac versus Windows. iPhone versus Android.
Now a new wave of computing is upon us. And for my money, this generation’s big fight is going to be between Google and Amazon.
Google looks set to fire the next round of volleys on Wednesday with a blitz of hardware launches. We’re expecting to hear about new Pixel smartphones, a tiny version of the Google Home smart speaker, and a new Chromebook laptop.
The new products are likely to have a common thread: Google Assistant, the search giant’s voice-based artificial intelligence technology.
Google’s original Pixel phones, which it launched last year, were the first to have Assistant baked in, much like Apple’s Siri. The Home smart speaker, which Google also released a year ago, is built around Assistant; talking to the device is the primary way to interact with it.
Not only are the new products likely to stick with Assistant, it looks like Google’s low-cost Chromebook laptops will soon get the technology too.
Google’s impending announcements can be thought of as an answer to Amazon, whose Alexa is the pioneering smart voice assistant behind its popular Echo smart speakers. Last week, Amazon unveiled a barrage of Alexa-powered hardware, including three new Echo smart speakers, a pair of accessories, and a new Fire TV streaming box.
The Amazon barrage
The voice assistant battle, which is playing out through the new hardware, is just one front in a wider war between Amazon and Google.
The companies already compete directly in cloud computing. Amazon has refused to carry Google’s Chromecast streaming sticks. It’s developed its own version of Android for its tablets and Fire TV devices that doesn’t link to Google’s Play app store. And Google is trying to displace Amazon as the starting point for online shopping.
But Alexa versus Assistant is perhaps the companies’ most visible battle and possibly the most consequential.
For Amazon, Alexa has basically unlimited upside. If Alexa and its Echo smart speakers don’t catch on with a mainstream audience, Amazon can pull the cord and go back to being an enormously successful retailer. But if they do become hits, they’re likely to reinforce Amazon’s position as the go-to place to shop, since one of Alexa’s key features is making it easy to buy stuff from Amazon.
That direct connection between Alexa and Amazon’s web store poses a threat to Google. Many consumers are already turning to Amazon first when searching for products to buy, rather than using Google’s search engine. Advertisers are catching on and starting to shift their ad dollars towards Amazon and away from Google.
That’s a big problem for Google, since ads are the company’s bread and butter. And if Alexa makes it even easier to search for products and gets widely adopted, Google stands to lose even more.
Google’s not sitting still. It’s been testing ways to have Assistant deliver ads. But the company has struggled to figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t totally annoy users. An early experiment with using the Google Home speaker to advertise Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” resulted in user backlash.
How Google fights back
Despite such problems, I actually prefer Assistant over Alexa, because in my experience, Assistant is way better at answering questions. It’s smart enough to know both silly trivia (“OK Google, what day was the battle of Hogwarts?”) and serious household tips (“OK Google, how do you dispose of a fire extinguisher?”).
Assistant’s ability to competently handle such queries points to Google’s big advantage. No one matches the search giant’s prowess at organising information. And the more useful Google Assistant is — the better it is at answering questions — the less likely it is that consumers will want to use Alexa or any other smart assistant.
Google’s moves to develop Assistant, put it in a range of its own products, and licence it for use in others can be seen as a defensive move. It represents the company’s effort to thwart the threat posed by Alexa of redirecting consumers to Amazon rather than Google.
But Google’s not just back on its heels. The company has gone on the offensive also. It teamed up with Walmart to offer voice shopping via the Google Home speaker, for example. The partnership isn’t as seamless as Amazon and Alexa, but it’s a good start. It could prevent Google customers from turning to Alexa — and possibly lure Amazon fans to Google.
Amazon has shown how relentless it can be in pushing Alexa. As Google makes its announcements on Wednesday morning, the search giant carries the burden of both staving off Amazon’s voice assistant and of proving that its own rival can add something to the market.
No matter what, it’s going to be fascinating to watch the battle play out.
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