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March 29, 2017updated 30 Mar 2017 5:10pm

Robot Wars – Google Home joins the fight

Google Home is coming to the UK, joining Amazon echo in the battle of the virtual assistants, but who has the upper hand so far?

By Joe Clark

Virtual assistants are all the rage right now, the idea of having your very own version of Iron Man’s Jarvis, Moon’s GERTY, or even Her’s Samantha if you’re that way inclined, has never been closer to reality.

The two big names currently leading the pack are Amazon Echo and Google Home, both of which are capable of acting as smart hubs for homes and streamlining daily activities.

The proto-AI’s Echo and Google Home both offer a range of smart services such as weather reports, music playback, and Netflix integration designed to take the hassle out of the little things in life. They can also both integrate with smart home applications such as Nest allowing you to control the heating of your home through voice commands.

Google has recently announcement that its Home is finally coming to UK homes this year, whilst Echo has been available since autumn of 2016, and both Home and Echo have been available in the US since 2016 and 2014 respectively. However, is Google going to be late to the party? Has Echo already captured too much of the market for Home to effectively join the battle of the smart speakers?

google

These Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA) are a rising trend across the globe and Gartner estimates that by 2020 consumer will be spending as much as $2.1 billion on VPA enabled smart speakers and they will be found in 3.3% of all homes across the planet.

Similarly, the ability to add more speakers to the same household, increases in functionality, and lower costs will see 75% of these homes owning one unit, 20% owning two, and 5% will own three or more devices by 2020.

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Currently it is estimated by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) that by October 2016 Echo had sold over 5 million units since launch, approximately 2 million of which were in the first 9 months. Whilst Morgan Stanley estimate the total the sold by 2017 could total 11 million.

CIRP also found that 69% US Amazon customers are now aware of Amazon Echo, up from 20% in 2015.

Both Google Home and Echo were hot topics over the holidays, but whilst there aren’t any sales statistics for Google Home, the most optimistic estimates place the device at less than a million since launching in October, and Google and Amazon typically do best in the fourth quarter. However, Google and Amazon reported that they had sold out of their respective devices in the holiday of 2016.

Gartner estimates that by 2018 30% of all search queries will be given by voice commands and ComScore predicts this number will 50% by 2020.

Currently there are over 40,000 searches a second on Google and 3.5 billion a day, this allows the company to generate enormous amounts of its revenue through search based advertising placements. If Google cannot edge its way into the home effectively then Amazon Echo’s own search mechanics, which are powered by Microsoft’s Bing, could bypass these ads, effectively carving off a chunk of Google’s revenue. Similarly, as Google introduces its own smart speaker into the home, these searches will then be undercutting their own advertising.

Alexa Echo

However, whilst Echo has certainly been the most popular of the two so far, arguably due to its earlier release, that does not mean that the device is the best of the two. Many reviews for Google Home have noted that the system may have benefited from a later release as the device appears to be generally smarter than its competitor.

For instance, Home is currently capable of better understanding the context surrounding any queries you might have. It’s possible for the device to understand when you are asking a follow up question such as ‘what is the weather today’ followed by ‘what about tomorrow’. Echo is not quite as advanced as that and would require users to state the question in full, asking ‘what is the weather today’ or ‘what is the weather tomorrow.’

The distinction may seem trivial but if voice commands really are going to be the way forward then an intuitive system like this could really give Google the edge. Voice tech needs to be responsive and as human-like as possible in order to avoid the uncanny valley and potentially deterring customers.

One of the other major theatres in this war will be who can provide the most functionality, Home is slightly newer and shinier but Echo has the benefit of experience. Since Amazon opened up Echo to third party developers, Amazon Echo’s ‘skills’ as they are known have risen from 1,000 in June of 2016 to over 7,000 by January 2017.

However, quantity is not quality and a new report from industry startup VoiceLabs found that 69% of these skills had either zero or one rating or review, meaning they were used very little, if ever.

According to analysts, both Home and Echo have a huge potential to change the market, and whilst Echo seems to have the early bird advantage that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It has the install base, for now, but if VoiceLabs findings are anything to go by it shows the system has some problems with retaining user investment. Google Home is expected to Launch in the UK this summer and it could mark a turning point in the battle of the home assistants.

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