Google's Voice-Activated Helpers Need More Assistance
(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- All around us, people are getting habituated to digital helpers, often controlled by their voices. They talk to Apple Inc.'s Siri to transcribe a text message to Mom. Tonight, people will ask their Echo speakers powered by Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa software to order pizza. Microsoft put its Cortana voice assistant into hundreds of millions of computers.
But Google's ubiquity in people's lives hasn't been much of a help in the battlefield for the emerging technology of voice-activated intelligent assistants.
The company talked prominently about new features for its virtual helpers at its Google I/O conference, which started Wednesday. Of course, many people are Googling by voice, asking to hear the score of the Mets game, or telling Android Auto to pull up directions in a car. But Google's string of digital butlers -- the latest iteration is the Google Assistant for smartphones and the Google Home voice-activated speakers -- don't feel as if they have quite landed yet. Or they have landed even less than the other voice-activated assistants on the market.
Market share for digital helpers isn't available. And the technology is so new that calling winners and losers is silly. But in a technology area Google should dominate, it hasn't captured people's attention and curiosity yet. It's hard to imagine "Saturday Night Live" would make a parody video about Google's voice-controlled digital helpers, the way the TV show did last week about the Amazon Echo speakers.
So what is going awry in the campaign to make Google the most loved intelligent assistant in technology?
Is Google being too careful? Siri and Amazon's Alexa are annoying but occasionally useful and available in many places. Amazon's digital helper is now spreading into an Alexa app for smartphones, the company's Fire TV streaming-video boxes and now a TV set, to home appliances, cars and more. Siri is hard-wired into the more than 215 million iPhones sold every year, plus Macs, iPads and Apple TV devices. Some of these voice-activated options are ridiculous and pointless, but ubiquity helps with awareness of intelligent assistants.
Google's digital buddy is quite good but in fewer places. The company has tiptoed into putting Google Assistant into cars and TVs, but it is most prominent in two spots: A minority of Android phones (more on that below) and in the Google Home speaker. Usually Google is fond of throwing spaghetti at the wall and putting its technology everywhere. The Google search box is inescapable, for example. The company said on Wednesday that Google Assistant was available on more than 100 million devices and that it was pushing the technology into more TVs and appliances. The company is smart to now try to win over people by more aggressively pitching its Assistant in more places.
Android is a mess, and the Assistant doesn't have a settled place. The Google Assistant is on the two most recent versions of Android, so it is theoretically built into roughly 38 percent of all Android phones. The problem is that not all Android phones work the same way or give Google technologies the same prominence or ability to access all the apps on the phone.
Having a digital butler is only useful if it can notice that flight confirmation email for your coming holiday in Florida, put a reminder on your digital calendar and then suggest a fun restaurant on the beach. Google parent company Alphabet Inc. doesn't always have the ability to be that connective tissue on phones from companies such as Samsung that use Android's operating system but have their own ideas about which Google technologies get a prominent position on their phones. Google Assistant is coming to iPhones, too, but it's a good bet that it won't have free rein over iMessage or other non-Google apps.
Does Google need a cutesy name? I personally detest the phenomenon of giving voice-activated assistants female names and identities like Alexa and Cortana. But it has a way of making the technology seem approachable and giving it a coherent brand. The name "Google Assistant" is so very bland. It might be time for Google to get the naming gurus on the case. Arguably, Android got a lift in its early days from a clever name and the "Droid" robot mascot.
I will say that too much attention is devoted to which companies are "ahead" or "behind" in emerging areas of technology. If I had written a column five years ago about voice-controlled helpers, I might have written that Microsoft was leading because of its Kinect motion-and-voice controller for its Xbox video game console, TV sets and more. Kinect fizzled out.
But something is happening. We are now expecting our technology to think for us a little, rather than be told what to do. Google talked Wednesday about handy tasks its digital butlers will be able to perform, such as buying concert tickets just by pointing a smartphone as a theater marquee. Our assisted future sounds exciting. But by being too few places without a coherent identity, Google Assistant needs some assistance to catch on.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.