Will Google Home finally break out of Amazon Echo’s shadow?

Brian Heater
Will Google Home finally break out of Amazon Echo’s shadow?

Last week, Amazon went on the offensive. It was a sort an Operation Shock and Awe of Echos, bringing the total line up to six devices — seven, if you count the Tap (which Amazon kind of, sort of does). The Seattle event was an aggressive show of dominance from a company that has essentially controlled the home assistant space since the release of the first device in late 2014.

For the past year or so, most analysts have had Amazon’s smart speaker marketshare hovering between 75 and 80 percent, a rare command for the consumer electronics space. Tomorrow’s Google event in San Francisco is a chance for the search giant to strike back. Along with two new Pixel phones, the event is expected to focus on Google Home — after all, it’s been nearly a year since the company’s answer to the Echo first hit the market.

During that time, there’s been little question that the company has been playing catch up to Amazon’s two-year lead. And Google’s done a pretty decent job on that front. I/O was a big show for Home, in spite of the fact that we didn’t actually see any new hardware. Back in May, the company brought some significant upgrades to the ecosystem, including hands-free calling, proactive alerts (contextual updates you don’t have to trigger manually) and a whole bunch of recipes.

Even more compellingly, the company made a big push to get Assistant functionality onto more third-party devices. The fruits of that effort started to bear out at IFA in September, when companies like Sony and JBL announced premium speakers sporting the functionality — and soon after Bose announced that it was bringing Assistant to its latest headphones, the QC35 II. Amazon’s been offering that sort of integration for some months now, but Google’s aggressive push has made up a lot of ground.

A cursory glimpse at tomorrow’s rumored announcements shows a company that continues to be somewhat reactive toward industry moves. There’s the mini version of the Home, set to compete with the Echo Dot, hitting a $50 or so price point, and a larger, more premium model in line with Apple’s HomePod (and the new Echo). There’s even a rumored version with a display in the works set to take on the Echo Show, which could go a ways toward explaining why the company pulled YouTube support from Amazon’s device.

All of the above have likely been in the works for a while — some before the announcements of their analogs. And each would go a ways toward bolstering Google’s offerings — particularly the mini version, which has quickly skyrocketed to the top of Amazon’s list of best selling Echos, owing to its ridiculously affordable price point. But in each case, Google isn’t doing enough from on the hardware side to really start to make up ground.

Of course, anyone in the industry will tell you that it’s still very much early days for the smart home assistant. And just because Amazon has been dominant thus far doesn’t mean the race is over. Google’s building on top of a solid foundation. The company is a the king of contextual search, which should go a ways toward offering a fuller experience on Assistant, once it truly cracks the code on voice interfaces.

The company also has a tremendous hardware base in the form of Android. Like Apple with Siri, mobile devices are a huge part of getting Assistant quite literally into the hands of more users. If the experience is a positive one, users will be much more inclined to adopt it for the home.

Straddling the line between mobile and home is the one spot where Google really has the competition beat. HomePod is still a few months off and its $349 price tag will make it cost prohibitive for many mainstream users. It’s also completely possible Apple won’t allow for the same kind of third-party hardware use for Siri that Amazon and Google have opened up to — the company tends to be extremely protective of its user experiences.

Amazon’s mobile Alexa play, meanwhile, has been spotty at best with a few handset makers dipping their toes in the water. This is occurring, mind you, on devices that, for the most part, already have access to Google Assistant.

Maybe tomorrow’s event will have some kind of killer bullet. From the looks of the rumors, however, the company is still playing catch up to Amazon’s utter dominance of the home market. Google is going to have to find a way to truly distinguish itself if it wants to change the narrative. For now, the race for the space is going to be a series of small advances. Thankfully for Google, however, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.