“Alexis, what is weather?”
I have a bit of a problem when it comes to home automation devices. I have z-wave light switches, Philips Hue bulbs, motion sensors, and door sensors galore. For my in-laws, this is a problem because I’m the only one in the house who really knows how to use them. My wife has adapted to my need to make simple tasks like turn on a light switch infinitely more confusing than it should be. However, my in-laws, who stay with us for a few weeks every year, haven’t fared so well. I would frequently wake up to my father-in-law (heretofore referred to as Neo) sitting in the living room in near darkness, the ceiling lights on their absolute dimmest setting.
There had to be a better way for people to use my “better way”.
Last August, Amazon announced that their Echo, a speaker that you can talk to, was integrating with SmartThings, the hub for my supposed “smart home”. I was elated, ecstatic, and one step closer to having Tony Stark’s Jarvis-controlled mansion. No one would need to touch a light switch in my house — ever again! “Finally,” I thought, “an answer to the problem that I created as a solution to a problem that didn’t exist!”
Well, kind of, sort of, not really. The day that Neo and CC, my mother-in-law, met Alexa, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as I expected. Neo kept referring to it as “Alexis”, which meant the Echo responded about half the times it should have. His voice commands didn’t quite match the syntax the Echo needed, either. So instead of saying “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light”, he would say “Alexis, kitchen light, on”, which would result in the Echo’s Blue Ring of Good Intentions to go dark.
Over time Neo got better at understanding how to ask the Echo to do something. Even though he still calls it “Alexis”, it now might actually do something instead of nothing at all. And a year later, CC is a pro, turning lights on and off with a “please” and “thank you” to our inhuman cylindrical servant.
It seemed that my experiment paid off. With the Echo reliably relieving Neo and CC from having to work my frustratingly annoying light switches, I felt proud that I was able to have my cake and eat it too. But then the Echo started showing some shortcomings. Some fairly simple questions like “What show is Chloe Bennet on?” or “Who wrote the book ‘The Firm’?” were met with a confused digital shrug. Playing music was also problematic, with the Echo switching off between playing the song requested or, frustratingly, responding by playing a 30-second sample instead.
Each time Alexa let me down, I’d pull out my Nexus 6P and run the same search through Google. Every time, Google would answer the question or play the song correctly. So it was becoming clear — I really needed Google’s version of the Echo.
Enter Google Home. When it was announced earlier this year at Google I/O, the hype train of a Google-powered Echo competitor had completely left the station. Google showed off a video of the Home expertly fielding commands from multiple household members, giving traffic updates, rearranging dinner reservations, turning on lights, casting YouTube videos to TVs, playing music — it was glorious. I couldn’t believe how seamless and integrated everything was. The voice commands were conversational and Google picked up everything thrown at it with aplomb. But, this being a first-generation Google product, it was too good to be true. Over the next few months Google clarified that Google Home wasn’t going to be capable of managing multiple user accounts and wouldn’t be able to identify people specifically by voice. On top of that, some of the integrations shown in the promo were features that may or may not ever come.
No matter. My wife never uses her Google account, so she wouldn’t care about that. I’m not using a majority of the Echo’s additional “Skills”, so it’s not like I’d miss out on not being able to tell Domino’s to send me a pizza or have Uber call me a car. I wanted integration with my Nest, SmartThings, Google Play Music library, and to actually be able to answer a question instead of saying “Hm…” all the time.
I’m a few days into owning the Google Home — how is it stacking up against the Echo? It’s certainly better at searches and its version of far-field microphone technology, while five microphones down on the Echo, seems to be just as good. It can set kitchen timers and alarms just like the Echo did. It knows movie times, can control my SmartThings hub and tell me the weather and morning news, just like the Echo could. In those regards, it’s practically no different. It’s a little better at using If This, Than That (or IFTTT) triggers, though that might be more due to enhancements on IFTTT’s channels and new “applet” features than the Google Home itself. Philips Hue seems to be better integrated and responds to commands to change the color of the bulbs, but I haven’t figured out yet how to change scenes.
Where Google Home really stumbles is third-party integrations. Amazon had a two-year head start to grow and expand the Echo’s third-party developer support. Amazon currently has over 2500 “skills” which it can use to connect itself to other devices and services. Google could, and arguably should, have spent more time getting more developers on board. Even today, a few days after the official release, we’re not seeing a release for an SDK [software development kit] that would allow for third-parties to even know how to integrate with Google Home. We get Philips Hue, SmartThings, Nest and IFTTT integrations and that’s it. While that might be fine for most users, Google is going to have to bait developers (and fast!) to ensure more widespread adoption, especially if the success of Google Assistant is reliant on a wide number of users.
Google Home is not perfect. It’s a first-generation product, and it’s not as developer-friendly (yet) as the Echo. On top of that, Google has a track record for unceremoniously axing products and services from its lineup, sometimes without rhyme or reason. With the new Pixel phones, Google WiFi, the Chromecast Ultra and Google Home, there’s at least some evidence that Google is trying to evolve from more than just software. And Google Home’s construction and price show that it can be taken seriously, though with a grain of salt and an eye on the long-term evolution of the software.
For all the faults of Google Home, I’m a sucker for Google. I want to believe they’re turning it around, that when they say they want to become more of a hardware company, they mean it. I’m invested in the Android platform and Google services. I own a Chromebook. I am, for all intents and purposes, all in on Google.
Sorry, Alexa. You can’t live here anymore.
This post was originally uploaded on November 9th, 2016 on Medium