If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Google Home should make Amazon turn completely and utterly crimson with embarrassment.
Google Home, for those that missed Sundar Pichai’s opening keynote at Google I/O, is a voice-activated product that brings the Google assistant to any room in your house via a Wi-Fi-connected speaker.
If that idea sounds familiar, don’t be alarmed – the Amazon Echo has been doing it for close to a year now.
What Google’s smart home speaker plans on doing differently, however, is being better at controlling your smart home devices, starting with Google’s recently acquired Nest series of products, and integrating with any Google Cast-enabled device you might have lying around the house.
What Google hopes to accomplish here is that, with a simple voice command you can ask Google Home to play a song, throw on your favorite TV show, check your flight or turn on your lights, all without leaving the comfort of the couch.
And, unlike the refined-but-super-simplistic Amazon Echo, the Home promises customizable bases in different colors and materials that will match your decor.
It’s a system that has all the trappings of a smart home control center, and could potentially be the device that brings the fractured category together under one banner.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? A smart speaker with an AI assistant built-in
- When is it out? Google Home will be released later this year
- What will it cost? Close to or less than the Amazon Echo
What is Google Home?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Google has painted a pretty pristine image of what it’d be like living in the smart home of the future, but we don’t need to wait for it to arrive to experience it – we already have an idea of what it’s like thanks to the Amazon Echo.
In many ways, Google Home will be nearly identical to the device some 3 million of us have in our homes already. For those who haven’t seen or used an Echo, however, it works a lot like Siri on your iPhone or the voice assistant function on Android.
You can ask it to play a song or ask it a question like "what day is Father’s Day this year," (the answer, in case you’re wondering, is June 19) or "what’s the weather like in Venice?" All questions need to be prefaced by a keyword – OK, Google in this case – which causes the speaker to start listening.
If weather, sports and current events aren’t enough, Amazon allows you to install additional plug-ins from third-party sources that expand the functionality of the Echo. Uber and Domino’s Pizza are two of the many services who have already signed up and allow you to order a car or a pizza, respectively, using voice commands.
It’s likely that Google will take a page – er, more like a chapter – from Amazon’s book and also include those functions in Google Home.
But both the Echo and the Home are more than just an artificial intelligence, they’re capable Bluetooth speakers, too.
During the opening keynote of Google’s I/O Developer Conference, Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google said, "Google Home is a Wi-Fi speaker that streams music directly from the cloud so you get the highest quality playback. It will deliver rich bass and clear highs all from a beautiful compact form factor."
So, sort of like an ultra-smart Sonos system.
"Of course you can access songs, playlists, albums, artists, and podcasts from your favorite music services just by asking with your voice. Or if you prefer, you can send music from your android or iOS device through Google Cast."
Let’s focus for a minute on those last two words: Google Cast. If Home has one absolutely killer feature, Google Cast is going to be it.
Google Cast, if you’re a bit unsure, is a wireless communication protocol like Bluetooth that allows two products (like a phone and a speaker) to communicate with one another.
At first, Google says, you’ll be able to ask Home to play something on any Google Cast-enabled speaker in your home. That means, like Sonos, you’ll be able to control what music is playing in which room, but all using your voice instead of an app on your phone.
Where it will go later, it sounds like, is the ability to control what content goes on your TV.
"Want to watch that episode of Jimmy Kimmel or the trending YouTube video on your TV? Just tell Google Home and the content will appear on the biggest brightest screen in your house," Queiroz said.
Imagine asking Google Home to play the latest episode of Game of Thrones or the best movie starring Joaquin Phoenix. There’s nothing out there like that and, to me, that could be Google Home’s ace in the hole.
The shining jewel of your smart home
Google Home is sort of a three-part system. Parts one and two, the Google Assistant and Bluetooth speaker, we’ve already gone over. The third part, however, is a sort of virtual hub for smart home devices, similar in nature to Samsung SmartThings.
Google wasn’t quick to list off every single partner for the product, but said that you can count on the Nest series of products to work with Home on day one.
What Google has going for it that Amazon does not is a formidable group of hardware partners that range from HTC and Sony, to Samsung, Huawei and LG. Any of the above might be the next big smart home device maker and, thanks to those pre-existing relationships, Google is primed to take advantage of whoever comes out on top.
But, as one of my colleagues Jon Porter pointed out, creating new partnerships could be harder for Google than it is for Amazon for one simple reason: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It might be hard to convince other smart thermometer makers to build Google Home functionality into their devices while Google Nest continues to bogart the market for itself.
All of this theorizing is conjecture, of course, until we learn more about Google’s partnership plans later this year.
Release date and price
So here’s where we get to the murky unknown. On stage, both Queiroz and Google chief Sundar Pichai were hesitant about telling us when, exactly, we’d be able to get our hands on the new smart home tech, only citing "later this year" for a release date.
Now, if this were a betting site – it’s not – I’d say chances are good for a soft launch around November, with a full scale roll out in the spring of next year.
As for the cost, traditionally Google products have come in a bit cheaper than their competition. Chromecast, a streaming video dongle from the Mountain View company, undercuts both the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick, for example, and Google Cardboard is roughly a twentieth of the cost of the Oculus Rift … not that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.
What that means, however, is that the Google Home will likely be less than the cost of an iPhone, and only slightly more than most traditional Bluetooth speakers. (Think $ 149 / £100 / AU$ 200 and you’ll be in the right ballpark.)
So, how does Google Home stack up against Amazon Echo? I’m glad you asked.