At an event in San Francisco yesterday, Google gave the press a tour of a smart home featuring its Google Assistant products. Notably, the new Google Home Hub was there. It was, in many ways, pretty typical: here’s how you can turn on the lights, command a TV to play Stranger Things on Netflix (it’s always Stranger Things on Netflix), and start or stop a Roomba. But Google also showed off a handful of new features for both Assistant and its Google Home products.
On their own, none of these new features are particularly revolutionary. Taken together, they certainly don’t add up to a compelling case for why somebody who is already enmeshed in Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem should switch over. What they did do, however, was begin to present a coherent idea of how Google thinks its Assistant should work in a smart home and across its own products.
The clearest example of that — and the feature I found most interesting — is the integration of Google Assistant Routines into the default Android clock app. Routines are essentially macros for a bunch of stuff you might ask Assistant to do in a row: turn on the lights, tell you the weather, start the coffee maker, and turn on the news. Google’s relatively simple move was to allow you to attach one of those routines to an alarm so that when you turn it off, it would automatically trigger your morning routine.
It’s the sort of thing you could easily achieve with similar features from Alexa or Siri, but tossing it on the phone’s clock app directly is smart. (Google’s clock app lets you pick a song on Spotify as your alarm sound, which is also smart.)
Another example: if you have a Google Home product, you may have tried the “broadcast” feature. From any device with Google Assistant on it, you can “broadcast” a message to every speaker in your home. (Think of it as a PA system — and, honestly, treat it like one because it can be kind of annoying.) The new feature is the ability for somebody to reply to one of those broadcasts from a speaker.
Your spoken reply gets sent to the person who sent it as a short voice message that is also transcribed. The person who sent the broadcast can then speak or even just type a reply. It works a little like a walkie-talkie, if you like. The use case Google suggests is broadcasting a request for stuff the family might want from the grocery store. Back home, your kid can reply that you need more juice.
But not every new feature was a sign of Google’s growing understanding that it needs to make sure its devices talk to each other and improve each other. Some of these features reveal Google’s increasingly partner-based approach to providing content. It’s about the deals.
Google is contextually showing recipe suggestions on the Google Home Hub now, depending on the time of day, the season, and, yes, your personal search history. You can save recipes in a cookbook that gets synced across devices, but only recipes that are freely available on the web. Your family recipes still have to sit in a box on your counter. Later on, you’ll be able to get recipes from subscription sources.
There’s also a partnership with Nickelodeon that expands existing features for the Google Home like bedtime stories. You can also get brand-based alarms out of these smart speakers. So a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle can tell your kid to go brush his teeth. And though brand tie-ups like this might make you cringe as much as me, you should know that there is some demand for more fun content out of these speakers. As Rani Molla reported earlier this week, the third most-used feature on smart speakers is “fun questions.”
Let’s set aside the kid-friendly “brand synergy” and web-focused recipe feature for a minute, though, and go back to what Google’s trying to accomplish in the smart home. What I saw yesterday was the beginning of an ecosystem that works better if you use more than one Google device. Instead of just trying to get you to buy a Home Mini over an Echo Dot, Google is trying to present a more elegant, integrated idea of how its products work.
If you have an Android phone, you’ll get to take advantage of routines from your alarm clock, making you more likely to prefer a Google Home. If you have a Google Home Hub, you absolutely are going to want to use Google Photos on your phone to sync your pictures. And if you have any flavor of Google Home, you’ll be more likely to want a Pixel phone. Another new option allows you to ask your smart speaker to set your phone to Do Not Disturb.
To be clear, none of this is locked in, not exactly. You can use Google Assistant on an iPhone, and Google Home works well with third-party products like Ring doorbells or Hue bulbs or Roomba. And as long as we’re being clear: never underestimate either Google or the smart home’s proclivity for letting things become slowly fragmented.
Even so, for maybe the first time, I’m beginning to see how Google has a path to build a “multiplier effect” ecosystem, one where each new Google product you adopt makes the other Google products you own more valuable. It’s not nearly enough to unseat Alexa as the default intelligent assistant on a smart speaker, but it might be enough to make an existing Google user think twice about switching.