How Google could fire up its smart home play

When it was unveiled at last year’s I/O, Home felt like little more than Google’s attempt to cash in on the Echo’s success. And the intervening year hasn’t done a lot to dispel that notion. The company announced a handful of additions to Home and Assistant at this year’s event to try to pull even with Amazon’s lead, but the whole Google Home offering still feels ambling and aimless.

That Google thought it had a slam dunk with Assistant on the mobile side hasn’t helped much, either. Since launching on the Pixel back in October, the voice helper still has a limited reach. Amazon, meanwhile, has made the jump onto handsets by companies like HTC and Huawei, while others, including Samsung, have opted to just build their own damned assistant in house.

It’s clear Assistant is a long play for Google. The company has the technological infrastructure and machine learning capabilities to build something truly great. For now, the thing doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from Alexa (unless you count annoying people with unwanted audio ads, or being annoyingly triggered by opportunistic TV ads…), but it’s still in the company’s best interest to get Assistant as widely distributed as possible.

Home is definitely a big piece of that puzzle, as it attempts to plant its flag in the smart home. But from the looks of industry estimates, Google’s late start isn’t doing it any favors. Recent analyst estimates put the company at around 23 percent of the 35 million or so devices currently out there. Amazon’s number is hovering around 70 percent.

Last year, Sundar Pichai described Google’s aim with AI as being to build a “personal Google for everyone, everywhere.” But the flip side of that desire is the fact that computing is no longer tethered to desktops — and is fast becoming fragmented across all sorts of competing devices and interfaces (like Amazon’s Echo) — so a strategic imperative here for Google is that the future of its search business depends on its algorithms remaining persistently available; within reach or earshot wherever people are, whatever network they’re using — else it risks losing its hard-won status as a verb synonymous with digital search.

So while Mountain View is trying to seize on the smart home as an opportunity, consumer momentum on this front also presents an undeniable risk for it — making Google vulnerable to a shift in computing behavior that favors voice assistants over traditional search. Because the best algorithm at organizing the internet is not automatically the best (or most popular) voice assistant.

Being able to plug into a vast e-commerce marketplace, as Amazon’s Alexa does, and reach out to all sorts of third-party services to extend utility (as Alexa keeps doing) is probably more obviously compelling to the average person sitting on their sofa right now versus summoning up a verbal version of Google. Alexa has most of the skills right now.

And there’s more heat incoming. Earlier this week, Andy Rubin-led startup Essential also announced its own plans to attack the smart home. And, next week, Apple is expected to show off its big play at WWDC, with a rumored Siri speaker. Though, Apple being Apple, the company will most likely fixate on the premium end of the market, say with a device for audiophiles, not just control freaks. So while things are about to get tighter, Google still has some room to maneuver to grab itself a bigger chunk of the mainstream smart home market — and thus a chance to reduce the strategic squeeze on its traditional search business.

OK, Google…

  • Leverage your smart home synergies: Google, you own Nest. Why not use it to spread the Assistant gospel? Like Amazon’s recent partnership with Ecobee, Nest products are a no-brainer for Assistant integration — and not just third-party actions. Build the Assistant directly into the product. Google has been making similar moves with its TV and Android Wear offerings, but adding a mic array directly into the thermostat or smoke alarm would be a simple way to place Assistant into even more homes without having to sell individual Home units.
  • Make a smaller, cheaper Home: Another no-brainer. A Google Home Dot, if you will. We’ve heard rumblings that such a device is in development for a fall launch. Without much to distinguish Assistant on the back end at the moment, Google is going to have to keep its pricing competitive. It’s a hard game to play for Google, for whom hardware is often a loss leader, but if it wants to lock users into Assistant fast, it’s going to have to offer something at around the $50 price point just to level with Amazon’s pricing.
  • Bundles: Better still, find a way to offer Google Home for free. For example: a Pixel/Home bundle. We’ve also heard Google is plotting along these lines. Granted, by most accounts, the Pixel hasn’t been a runaway hit (in terms of sales figures), but tossing in a free Home Dot could sweeten the deal and drive momentum to both Google hardware divisions. The competition has also been offering similar bundles for a while, such as Samsung with the Galaxy S8, which threw in a free Gear VR. Bundling is also a great way to prime the pump — by, in this instance, getting a still by-no-means mainstream device into the living rooms of people who wouldn’t buy a Home on its own merits — and may not even have come across such a device yet.
  • Push for third-party integration: We’re starting to see third parties offering up full Alexa functionality on their products, which has the potential to profoundly expand Amazon’s smart assistant’s reach. Let’s be real, that isn’t happening any time soon via Android Wear. Apple won the wearables category (at least for now). So be proactive, Google. There’s an important lesson to be learned from Amazon’s work with Conexant to create a mic system development kit that makes it easier for companies to prototype and, when the time comes, develop the on-board mic hardware into a production-ready unit. And while the Amazon brand clearly has big pulling power for consumers, which in turn gives third parties an incentive to plump for Alexa over Google, Google’s stated aim for its AI Assistant to be “everywhere, helping everyone” is a reminder of the scope and scale of its ambition, too. And Google is still Google. For plenty of Android users the ability to get the same AI Assistant across lots of different IoT devices should be a strong selling point.

For now, it remains to be seen how much damage has been done to Google’s search business by Amazon’s careful, long-term maneuvering in the voice AI space, and now by the Echo’s early lead inside the smart home. There’s still plenty to play for, given what are relatively low levels of adoption for these always-listening in-home AIs. Although there is also the question of whether or not there will be massively mainstream appeal to barking commands into a terminal. It’s unlikely AI speakers are another smartphone-sized phenomenon. But again, Amazon is quickly expanding its hardware bets to try to convince all sorts of people that Alexa offers utility — whether they’re fashion lovers or family-focused homebodies. Meanwhile, the Dot sets a low barrier for entry on the price front.

It’s also clear that Jeff Bezos and company are benefiting from a lack of direction within Google’s hardware business — which one source described to us as “extremely chaotic” and “disorganized,” recounting how separate hardware teams inside the company have unknowingly ended up developing the same product. And while Mountain View is wasting energy grappling with how best to expand its Assistant beyond smartphones, you can be sure Amazon has its eyes fixed on the smart home prize.