When Google launched Home at I/O back in May, the software giant was clearly gunning for Amazon Echo. In 2017, however, it’s Amazon that’s begun elbowing in on Google’s territory. At CES, Huawei announced plans to launch Alexa on the US version of its Mate 9 handset.
This week at Mobile World Congress, Motorola followed suit, inviting Amazon on stage to help unveil a partnership that will bring the company’s smart home assistant to its hardware moving forward, including, most notably, a Harman Kardon speaker Mod concept for the Moto Z that essentially transforms the phone into a portable Echo.
That same day, Google had a big announcement of its own: Assistant was getting a far wider mobile rollout, with the company bringing its AI to Android 6.0 and 7.0 devices featuring Google Play services. It’s a big step for a roll out that began life modestly with availability on the Pixel handset back in October.
Google’s decision to be deliberate as it prepped its software for the wider Android ecosystem left open a window and Amazon stepped right through. And it’s no doubt been difficult for Google to cede ground on its own operating system after pouring so many hours on a system designed to tie together its myriad services.
In a conversation TechCrunch, however, Google Assistant product lead Gummi Hafsteinsson said that the company welcomes the added competition. “I think it’s up to the user to pick,” he said this week at Mobile World Congress. “Hopefully that should be the case with any product they want to use. If you have a phone with Google Assistant, our goal would be to make it possible for users to have access if they want it.”
Hafsteinsson adds that the voice assistant battle is still in “early days,” which is true especially for Google’s own offering. After all, the Pixel phones were only just released four months ago. That’s not a particularly long runway, even in the swift moving world of consumer electronics. But a lot has happened in that time in addition to multiple Alexa/Android announcements.
In November, Samsung confirmed that it was working on its own in-house AI Assistant based on its purchase of Viv Labs last year that would launch on the S8. We’ll be seeing a lot more on that front in a few weeks when the company launches the device at a standalone event. Even Microsoft’s been looking for a piece of the action, launching Cortana for the OS in mid-January.
It all amounts to what seems to be a slow chipping away of potential marketshare.
Google, meanwhile, has been busy working on extending Assistant’s reach beyond the Pixel and Home. “The point is that the it’s the same Assistant in all those places,” said Hafsteinsson . “Since then, we’ve announced that it’s coming soon to the car, to the TV. It launched last month on Wear and now we’re growing it on mobile.”
It’s a similar, if more controlled version of Amazon’s approach to ubiquity, which found Alexa popping up on multiple smart refrigerators back at CES. Both represent far more aggressive plays than Apple’s typically controlled Siri experience.
Of course, the success of any assistant moving ahead will lie not only in what it can do, but its ability to be accessed anywhere. Amazon’s jump start in the home with the briskly selling Echo will make that a tough mountain to climb, but the massive worldwide penetration of Android ought to give Google a leg up.
As the Fire Phone no doubt taught Amazon the hard way, conquering smartphones is much easier said than done. But it’s arguably the most important space, with mobile serving as the gateway to so much of what we do.
The announcements of the last couple of months are no doubt only the beginning. A successful assistant means getting users to buy into an ecosystem, buy more hardware and offer up a ton of that contextual data that companies love so much.
It’s going to be long, hard-fought battle.