Why the Next-Generation Google Assistant Could Be a Game Changer for Google

The business that monetizes the voice ecosystem will lead the voice-first economy. During Google’s I/O developer conference May 7-9, Google previewed a major development in its fight with Amazon to be that leader: the launch of a faster Google Assistant, described as “game changing” by Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz. A Google Assistant that responds more effectively to voice commands is certain to make Google a more appealing utility as people continue to use the voice interface to accomplish everyday tasks. And offering a utility remains Google’s chief strength as a brand. The only question is whether Google will move quickly enough to capitalize on its advantage by making the next-generation Google Assistant widely available.

Google Launches On-Device Speech Recognition

Google announced that Google Assistant, Google’s voice assistant, is getting faster with on-device machine learning. In other words, Google devices using Android will offer a voice interface directly through the device rather than rely on the cloud.

This news might have come as a surprise to people who assume that their conversations with voice assistants are managed on their devices solely. In reality, the software that manages Google Assistant actually resides on the cloud. Similarly, when you use the Apple Siri voice assistant on your iPhone, Apple relies on the cloudAnd so does Amazon when you use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on an Echo smart speaker. By moving the voice assistant software from the cloud to your phone, Google says Google Assistant will deliver answers to voice requests up to 10 times faster. According to Manuel Bronstein, Google’s vice president of product development, Google Assistant:

Running on-device, the next generation Assistant can process and understand your requests as you make them, and deliver the answers up to 10 times faster. You can multitask across apps—so creating a calendar invite, finding and sharing a photo with your friends, or dictating an email is faster than ever before. And with Continued Conversation, you can make several requests in a row without having to say “Hey Google” each time. 

He also wrote, “This breakthrough enabled us to create a next generation Assistant that processes speech on-device at nearly zero latency, with transcription that happens in real-time, even when you have no network connection.”

The next-generation Google Assistant will become available on Google Pixel phones later in 2019. Google has not yet announced its availability beyond the Pixel. Now that Google has taken the wraps off the improved product, Google needs to act quickly to make Google Assistant more widespread across the Android world while Google has first-mover advantage. 

Why a Faster Google Assistant Matters

Making voice faster and responsive is crucial for Google to be a leader. Years ago, Google became synonymous with the entire search category because the Google search engine offered (and still offers) a utility. Users could type commands and get useful, reasonably accurate answers quickly. Fast-forward to 2019. Google still dominate traditional search. But Google does not lead the voice-first experience as it does traditional search. For example, in the United States, Amazon owns 63 percent of the market for voice-activated smart speakers (although its share is declining). Globally, Amazon and Google are neck and neck in this category

Google has a strong motivation to overtake Amazon: the use of voice assistants is expected to triple from 2.5 billion digital voice assistants in use to 8 billion in 2023. With on-device voice:

Google Can Make Voice More Reliable

Google Assistant has been evaluated as being a more reliable assistant than Alexa based on accuracy of responses. By making Google Assistant faster, Google makes its voice technology even more reliable, thus building on its strength. At Google I/O, Google demonstrated vividly just how useful voice technology can be with the faster Google Assistant:

As Andy Boxall noted in Digital Trends, “Speed is everything, because with it comes convenience. Without it, there’s only frustration. You can reply to messages now using dictation, but you have to go through a series of steps first, and Assistant can’t always help. Using voice is faster, provided the software is accurate and responsive enough. Google Assistant 2.0 looks like it will achieve this goal, and using our phones for something more than only basic, often-repeated tasks may be about to become a quicker, less screen-intensive process.”

With speed and reliability comes trust. As consumers see just how useful voice can be, they’re going to move beyond the current state of using voice to do simple things such as check the weather and move on to more doing more complicated tasks such as making purchases — and businesses are eager for that day to come.

Google Can Make Voice a Better Mobile Experience

Google Assistant is available on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018. Why? One big reason: mobile phones powered by Google’s Android operating system use Google Assistant by default. Android has acted as a Trojan horse to make Google Assistant live on mobile phones. As Manuel Bronstein told The Verge “The largest footprint right now is on phones. On Android devices, we have a very, very large footprint.” And here Amazon can’t touch Google, whose real rival is Apple for leadership of voice on mobile phones. 

Now, mobility means more than using our phones, as evidenced by Amazon, Apple, and Google fighting to embed their voice assistants in automobiles. To that end, at I/O, Google also introduced driving mode, which makes any Android-powered phone using Google Assistant more valuable for driving. As Google announced,

In the car, the Assistant offers a hands-free way to get things done while you’re on the road. Earlier this year we brought the Assistant to navigation in Google Maps, and in the next few weeks, you’ll be able to get help with the Assistant using your voice when you’re driving with Waze.

Today we’re previewing the next evolution of our mobile driving experience with the Assistant’s new driving mode. We want to make sure drivers are able to do everything they need with just voice, so we’ve designed a voice-forward dashboard that brings your most relevant activities—like navigation, messaging, calling and media—front and center. It includes suggestions tailored to you, so if you have a dinner reservation on your calendar, you’ll see directions to the restaurant. Or if you started a podcast at home, you can resume right where you left off from your car. If a call comes in, the Assistant will tell you who’s calling and ask if you want to answer, so you can pick up or decline with just your voice. Assistant’s driving mode will launch automatically when your phone is connected to your car’s bluetooth or just say, “Hey Google, let’s drive,” to get started. Driving mode will be available this summer on Android phones with the Google Assistant.

Now, consider how a faster Google Assistant could help you as you’re driving and using your voice as a device for wayfinding, making restaurant reservations, and communicating. It’s easy to see how faster replies matter even more when you’re driving, especially when you drive through an unfamiliar area or cities with complicated routes. 

Insanely Powerful, But Can’t Be Used

As noted, the faster Google Assistant will first launch on Google’s new Pixel phones, which are reportedly the fastest-growing smartphones in the United States. So far Google has not yet said when widespread availability beyond the Pixel will happen. But Google will need to make the faster on-device Google Assistant available on any Android-powered device to make a real difference. As Yahoo! News wryly noted in a recent headline, “New Google Assistant is insanely powerful, but can’t be used.”  It’s hard to believe Google would restrict an on-device Google Assistant to Pixel phones. Google cannot afford to do so. The opportunity is too great, and the stakes are too high, for Google to play conservatively.

The Prize

What’s the monetary pay-off for Google making Google Assistant smarter? As I noted earlier this year, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue. Google needs to keep giving people reasons to use products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and Google Chrome. That’s why in 2018, Google launched Google Duplex, an AI-powered bot that mimics the human voice to book reservations and perform other tasks with businesses. (Google Duplex was launched on Pixel phones and is now available on the web.) By keeping people on Google’s ecosystem, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior.

As Amazon’s own advertising products take flight, and with Amazon stealing consumer search traffic from Google, Google is under tremendous pressure to protect and extend its reach in the home and on the go. As we move toward a voice-first world, is Google moving quickly enough? 

When Voice Assistants Peddle Potato Chips

The Pringles brand is returning to Super Bowl LIII 2019 on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Now I know we’re really living a voice-first world.

Pringles has released three teasers for its Super Bowl LIII spot. The star of the ad will be a  — wait for it — voice assistant. At a time when advertisers are loading up on celebrities such as Chance the Rapper to hustle products, Pringles is relying on a faceless, Alexa-like voice assistant to sell us on the emotional power of Pringles flavors.

The ad, which will play during the second quarter of the Super Bowl February 3, will sell the viewer on the appeal of “flavor stacking,” or combining Pringles flavors in interesting and tasty stacks. The teasers depict an “emotional smart device” (in the words of a Pringles press release) that laments not being able to taste Pringles. In one teaser, the device sighs, “I cannot taste Pringles. I can only order them.” 

The ad will also supported by “a fully integrated marketing campaign including PR, digital, social media, e-commerce and product sampling.”

Whether a depressed voice assistant will inspire Super Bowl watchers to start stacking Buffalo Ranch, Wavy Applewood Smoked Cheddar, or Screamin’ Dill Pickle Pringles remains to be seen. But the fact that a well-known consumer packaged goods company would shell out $5 million (the approximate cost of a 30-second spot for Super Bowl LIII) for an ad that makes a joke involving a voice assistant shows just how rapidly the voice-first economy is evolving. 

Last year’s Super Bowl featured an ad using Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, but the point of the ad was to playfully sell Alexa itself. Pringles is banking on the likelihood that people are so familiar with voice assistants that an ad can incorporate the voice metaphor to sell its own product. Here’s what the number say: According to Accenture, half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago. Accenture also notes that smart speakers are among the fastest-adopted technologies in U.S. history. In the United States, most consumers are aware of Alexa even if they’ve not used it.

The risk, though, is that the joke becomes dated as technology evolves. But if the ad helps Pringles move product in the near term, perhaps it won’t matter. 

Now let’s see if an Alexa knock-off can get us to start stacking chips. 

Why Amazon and Google Are Fighting to Lead the Voice-First Economy

To no one’s surprise, the story of CES 2019 was the battle between Amazon and Google to lead the emerging voice-first world.

CES was awash with announcements about products such as alarm clocks and thermostats powered by Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and Google Assistant, prompting coverage such as CNET’s “Who Won CES 2019: Amazon or Google?” and USA Today’s “CES 2019: Google vs. Amazon, Who Won?

In the aftermath of CES, though, one question looms: What exactly do Amazon and Google get out of winning this battle?

Numbers Galore

Both Amazon and Google used CES to state the case for their leadership of voice (Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, while certainly players, are not the leaders in voice although Apple is a strong challenger). Google announced that Google Assistant is on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018 (a figure boosted by the sale of Android phones that contain Google Assistant by default). Amazon disclosed that it has sold more than 100 million devices that rely on its Alexa virtual assistant. In addition, the number of people who use Alexa every day — and who own more than one Amazon Echo smart speaker — doubled in 2018. 

Meanwhile, during CES, more telling numbers were disclosed. According to research conducted by Edison Research and NPR, 53 million adults in the United States (or two out of 10 Americans) own at least one voice-activated smart speaker. The number of smart speakers in homes has increased 78 percent year over year. And on January 8, Accenture reported that half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago.

These figures don’t mean that people are actually using their voices to buy things from businesses. In fact, most people use voice assistants to perform everyday tasks such as listening to music and getting weather information. But the usage data is important nevertheless. It shows that even if we’re not exactly living in a voice-first world, we’re getting there – and doing so quickly considering that the Amazon Echo didn’t exist until 2014, and Google Home just two years later. In addition, by 2016, 20 percent of all Google mobile queries were voice searches.  

The rise of voice also helps explains why so many companies continue to launch products fueled by voice at CES, and 2019 was no exception.

Gadgets and Software Integrations

CES unleashed a dizzying array of products powered by voice, usually through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. These products typically focus on making it easier for people to use their voices to live in their homes and navigate their cars. For instance:

In the Home

Lenovo announced an alarm clock powered by Google Assistant. KitchenAid and GE rolled out smart displays that rely on Google Assistant to help you get recipes, watch videos, and do anything else to keep you occupied and entertained in the kitchen. Currant’s new smart wall outlet, which can be controlled by Alexa and Google Assistant, monitors energy usage and suggests which products to automatically turn off to conserve power. The Dalkin smart thermostat works with Alexa and Google Assistant to control the climate in your home.

You can learn more about major product announcements here and here. (For those of you keeping score, in November 2018, Recode reported that Google Assistant works with 10,000 smart home devices versus 20,000 for Alexa.)  But the most intriguing products, such as the Currant smart wall outlet, use artificial intelligence to not only act on your voice commands but also give you information and manage your home without your intervention.

On the Go

Both Amazon and Google showed that Alexa and Google Assistant are powering our lives on the go, too. Google formally integrated Google Maps with Google Assistant, which is important because of Google Maps’s popularity for mobile wayfinding. As Mashable noted, “Google envisions users asking it for directions home, or to nearby restaurants and saved locations. You can ask the assistant to search for places along your route (like gas stations) or add a stop — all things that used to require some button pushing.”

Amazon announced a stronger push into voice-powered automobiles. CES was barely under way when Amazon and Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps. And then Amazon formally launched Amazon Echo smart speaker for the car. Google announced a similar product through a relationship with Anker’s Roav automotive accessory, which is essentially a Google Home for the car.

These announcements continued a battle for on-the-go voice experiences that has been going on for some with Google, Apple, and Amazon all rapidly launching products and software designed to be the de facto infotainment systems for different car manufacturers. The irony is that major auto makers have been announcing dips in sales for 2018. But overall, automotive has been a strong industry over the past several years. And now cars are getting smarter.

What Do They Want?

No wonder so many “Google versus Amazon” stories have proliferated throughout January. But the more important question than who “won” CES is what do Amazon and Google get out of all these voice-powered products? The answer is simple:

  The company that owns the ecosystem monetizes the voice-first world.

Owning the ecosystem yields practical benefits, such as revenue gained from the sale of smart speakers. Amazon commands a strong leadership of smart speakers, but Google is catching up. As of 2019, Amazon is capturing 63.3 percent of the smart speaker market, with Google Home accounting for 31 percent. The numbers matter for another reason besides revenue: smart speakers connect people with other smart devices, thus acting as a gateway for product integrations. As Accenture noted in its survey of global smart assistant users, “[n]inety-three percent of consumers globally expect their home device purchases, such as smart TVs or computers, to be based on ease of integration with their standalone smart speaker.”

Google’s Motivation

For Google, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue.  Google needs to keep giving people reasons to keep using products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and the Google Chrome web browser. As people stay on Google, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior. As people use voice, Google can keep them on Google by incorporating voice into its products, launching new products such as Google Home, and making Google Assistant part of other companies’ products, which is the alarm clocks, thermostats, and cars using Google Assistant come into play. 

But it’s not all about advertising for Google. Google also wants intelligent voice assistants to make Google software and hardware (such as Pixel phones) more useful and popular, a dramatic example being Google’s Duplex software, which can make convincing phone calls on behalf of human beings.  

What Amazon Wants

Amazon has its own motivations. Amazon is already a popular search engine for product searches, with half of online shoppers starting their searches on Amazon. Amazon also needs to incorporate voice to keep those shoppers using Amazon as they become more comfortable using voice – not just because Amazon wants them to buy things from Amazon with their voices, but also because Amazon is building an online advertising business that is already the third largest in the industry, behind Google and Facebook

As Amazon creates its own advertising business, it, too, needs to show potential advertisers that it can deliver an audience to them – in the home and on the go, whether they use their voices or text to get what they need. In 2018, it was reported that Amazon was in talks with advertising giants such as Procter & Gamble to permit them to advertise on Amazon Echo speakers. Amazon has denied that it’s going to permit advertising through Alexa. But even if Amazon does not offer ads, per se, it can use voice to mine valuable data about its customers that would be useful to its advertisers, such as Google can.

Amazon is already working with businesses to monetize skills. Through premium content known as in-skill products that reside within Alexa skills, businesses can sell premium content such as in-game currency. For example, Stoked Skill offers free games such as Escape the Room and Escape the Airplane. The games are set up as Alexa skills. Players use Alexa skills to find clues that will help them escape spaces such as jell cells and cars. Customers can pay for optional “hint” packs (in in-skill product) that make it easier for them to escape. 

I could see Amazon also offering branded content and products to Prime customers who use Echo, such as discounts at local restaurants unlocked exclusively through Amazon Echo Auto. Doing so would monetize voice without more intrusive advertising that lack any useful offers.

Finally, Amazon has other plans to monetize voice in the enterprise, such as Alexa for Business to help enterprises use Alexa to improve workforce productivity. As these examples show, companies are using Alexa for Business to book conference rooms, manage the connection status of shared devices, and other workplace tasks. But Amazon has competition in the enterprise most notably from Apple and Microsoft.

What Business Should Do

Brands have a clear mandate: prepare for a voice-first world, and one where Amazon and Google call the shots for now. When consumers start really buying products and services via voice assistants, brands will need to play ball with the companies that control the voice ecosystem. Here is how Recode envisions one way that world will play out:

How it works now: If you ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant to buy, say, shampoo, they’ll surface what they think you’ll want. Alexa uses several criteria to suggest a purchase option: Your order history, whether a product is eligible for free Prime shipping and whether the product has the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval — “highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.”

Google picks products from merchants thatare most relevant to the query. It also considers purchase history and information about user preferences, as well as an item’s availability and proximity.

Both companies say there is no favoring of specific retailers — or their own products.

Brands also can’t pay for visibility — yet. For now, Amazon and Google are trying to build trust among new — few — voice buyers by making their search results as relevant as possible. It doesn’t, however, take much imagination to see a future in which Amazon or Google merchants could pay to have their products suggested by their smart assistants — like sponsored ads that crowd their websites — as a way to generate more ad dollars.

Today, businesses are participating by creating sometimes clever and inventive voice-based brand building experiences, such as HBO’s voice-activated Westworld game, in which people use Alexa to explore the mythical Westworld. Other businesses have created their own branded Alexa skills. With Tide’s Stain Remover skill, you can get stain removal instructions shared with you through Alexa. Campbell’s offers recipes through Campbell’s Kitchen. Presumably, these businesses could offer in-skill products if they wanted to, an example being HBO offering a premium-tier Westworld game for purchase. And businesses are optimizing their content to be found through voice search. 

Amazon and Google are not the only companies doing the heavy lifting, but they are leading the way to a voice-first world. Smart companies are going with them.