Google’s Assistant, chasing Alexa, is said to plan revamped push

Google had big plans to show off wares at the Consumers Electronics Show this week, but its grand unveiling got pre-empted by rain – and outshined by rival Amazon. 

The Alphabet Inc unit set up a sprawling booth – more like a full-fledged showroom – at the technology conference in Las Vegas to highlight its products officially for the first time. On Tuesday, opening day, the space was full of Google-branded devices and speakers, TVs from partners and heavy promotions for Google’s voice-based Assistant. Then a downpour blanketed the tent, forcing Google to postpone the debut of its digs. 

Meantime, inside Amazon.com Inc was unveiling yet another score for its rival digital assistant, Alexa. The voice interface will be included inside some 2018 Toyota Motor Corp vehicle dashboards, real estate that Google is also vying for. 

Google was far more visible in Las Vegas, claiming massive outdoor billboards on the strip to promote its artificial-intelligence-powered, voice-based platform. It also grabbed headlines with an announcement that the assistant will be available for all cars that run its Android Auto software. 

All the fanfare did little to threaten market leader Amazon, which introduced Alexa on its home speakers in 2014, gaining a two-year jump on Google. “We have a several-year lead, and we seem to be accelerating,” Steve Rabuchin, a vice president for Amazon’s Alexa, said in an interview. 

But Google’s offense won’t end when CES comes to a close. The Alphabet Inc-owned company is considering the launch of a revamped online retail site in February to sell its own products – and those from Nest, Alphabet’s smart-home gadget unit – with Google’s digital assistant at the centre, according to two people familiar with the plans. 

As competition has escalated, Amazon has recently removed some Google devices from its store and taken YouTube, Google’s video service, off its gadgets. Google is also discussing a strategy for buying products and services via the assistant, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private plans. 

Ahead of CES, Google said Assistant now runs on 400 million devices – mostly smartphones powered by Android, the most popular mobile operating system, where it comes as part of the package. But internally, the search engine operator is worried about losing share to Amazon, according to one person briefed by the company. In the smart-speaker market specifically, EMarketer estimates Echo will command a 68% share this year, compared with 25% for Google Home. 

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on future plans and market share. Scott Huffman, a Google vice-president, said in an interview that Assistant’s main focus this year will be spreading further to mobile devices, home gadgets and cars. Huffman’s team is also working on closer customisations with longtime Google partners – like voice commands to troubleshoot batteries, with smartphone makers, and automatic payments for mobile-carrier bills. 

Another concern for Google: When device makers think of making money off voice interactions, they’re turning to Amazon. Consider LG Electronics Inc. At CES, the Korean manufacturer introduced a suite of new gadgets and appliances with built-in voice features. With its new TVs, LG is relying on Google, its partner on mobile phones. Its refrigerators, though, will talk with Alexa – a prime conduit to buying groceries and other items through Amazon. 

“Anything to do with purchasing information, that Amazon can provide,” said Park Il-Pyung, LG’s chief technology officer. 

Executives at other companies, such as Toyota, said at CES that they imagine consumers may vacillate from one digital helper to the other. Sonos, a maker of popular home speakers, plans to add integration with Google Assistant this year. It already has Alexa integration. 

“We’ll have to see how that works out,” said Google’s Huffman. “We see one of the main values of an assistant, over time, from interaction with the same assistant across all the channels.” Most assistants are designed to get smarter with use as they learn from experience and register their users’ preferences. And Google has prided itself on a product that can not only jump from one device to another, but can decipher different users based on their voices. 

In 2016, Google reignited a hardware effort of its own, releasing a smartphone and home speakers to compete with Amazon’s Echo line. The initiative was devised, in large part, to ensure that its assistant, an extension of its valuable search product, reaches wide circulation. In addition to Amazon, Google must contend with competition from some of its closest hardware partners. At CES, Samsung Electronics Co – the leading Android phone maker – pledged to bring its own voice assistant, Bixby, to its phones, televisions and home appliances. 

Then there’s Apple Inc. The iPhone maker is expected to release a smart speaker this year after delaying it from 2017, and it’s placing more resources behind Siri, its own voice-based assistant. Unlike Google and Amazon, Apple is barely a force at CES and hasn’t been eager to spread Siri beyond its own devices. “We’d love to build Siri in – that would be an awesome experience for our customers,” said Antoine Leblond, a Sonos software vice president. “At this point, the ball is in Apple’s court.” 

Google’s new Assistant strategy is said to emulate one of Apple’s key advantages: A recognisable suite of consumer products. While Amazon is eager to market its Echo devices, people who spoke to the company said at CES that its primary objective for Alexa is to drive more sales and traffic back into its Prime subscription service and e-commerce mothership. 

That tactic was evident in Amazon’s logic for offering Alexa on products that compete with the Echo speakers, like speakers from Sonos. “A lot of our partners sell on Amazon,” said Rabuchin, the Alexa vice-president. “We’re happy if someone picks a Sonos one over one of our devices. They still sign in as an Amazon customer.” — Bloomberg

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