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OK Google, it’s time to finally take on Amazon’s Alexa


SAN FRANCISCO (Circa) - Google held its I/O developers conference in Silicon Valley this week, an annual shindig where the tech giant shows off what’s new with its products. A huge amount of stage time this year was devoted to the voice-controlled Google Assistant, including the reveal of some new smart home devices it’ll be packed inside of, six new voice flavors it’ll speak in and one particular demo where Google CEO Sundar Pichai ordered the AI service to make a hair cut appointment over the phone.

"A big part of getting things done is making a phone call," Pichai said before presenting the recorded conversation the Assistant had with a human at the salon, one that (it sounded like) resulted in AI autonomously scheduling the appointment. (You'll have to watch that below for yourself to fully appreciate it.)

Now, mind-blowing demos aside, you would think that the AI-laced digital assistant from the makers of the world's most used operating system and most used web search would be great, but the Google Assistant actually lags in overall reach to Amazon's Alexa. The latest figures show Alexa commanding the smart speaker market with a 72% stranglehold.

The reason why that is could boil down to effort, really. But, in the last few months, I/O conference included, Google has begun to show that it's finally ready to make an all-out push for the Google Assistant.

The company recently announced that Assistant is now on more than 5,000 different smart home devices. That’s less than half of the 12,000 that Amazon claims for Alexa, but Google’s gotten its figure up quickly from the mere 1,500 devices where it was at the beginning of this year.

At the beginning of this month, Google also kicked off a new investment project that would throw money at select early-stage start-ups that are contributing to the Google Assistant ecosystem, something Amazon has been doing since 2015 with its Alexa Fund.

One of the first four start-ups to receive funding from Google's new program is Botsociety, which has created what it calls the Photoshop for voice assistant bots, empowering companies to create their own customer service ai agents that can be reached through devices like the google home.

Co-founder Vittorio Banfi says his company's service also creates bots with Amazon's Alexa but that Google's Assistant is the more "powerful" of the two.

"I personally like the Google home more. It gives developers and companies the flexibility of crafting their own personality," he said. "You can change the voice, you can change the pitch. You have a lot of leverage on that.

Another early Google Assistant investments company is Go Moment, which builds customs versions of its bot concierge service (Ivy) for various hotels. Though text messaging has been the main way guests reach Ivy for things like room service, Go Moment is now in the process of expanding to more voice-based communications with Ivy through digital assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa.

"Now they have the option with Ivy. They can start the conversation on text, and while they’re in their room, say, 'Ivy, get me more towels.' And then two minutes later, they’ve got their towels," Singh explained.

"Google’s smart assistant framework is really interesting to us because it’s inherently multimedia … they’ve got the Android assets, Chromecast, all these kinds of things that are currently being used in a lot of homes and are likely to also be in a large number of travel environments."

So why is now the time for Google to push its, apparently, very good Google Assistant?

We know Amazon’s Alexa is placed in your home to get you to buying stuff. But Google’s said it has the same plans in mind for Google Assistant and Google Home, so that makes it important for the company to catch up to Amazon now before it runs too far ahead in the market.

And, maybe more importantly, as gadgets go more and more the way of voice-control, there’s no doubt Google, one of the largest collectors of valuable user data in the world – currently through taps, clicks and key strokes – needs to make sure its services maintain a strong base of users in the future when a lot more of them are just talking to their tech services.

So, while analysts, media outlets and those working in the field continue to confirm that Google’s Assistant is in fact the smartest voice assistant out there, Google’s moves to now place the tech front and center through commercials, showcases from big press events and financial investment endeavors could mean “Hey Google” will soon finally take over “Alexa” to become the industry standard voice assistant it arguably should be.

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