If Google wants to hang onto its status as the world’s dominant source of information, it needs to make sure people keep using Google products when they’re in hands- and screen-free situations. As part of that goal, it needs to gain a greater foothold in voice.Voice is the technology every major Silicon Valley company is racing to dominate before anyone else; and Google, with its search and language capabilities, would seem poised to take the lead.But Google is starting from behind. The company made a late push into hardware, and Apple’s Siri, available on iPhones, and Amazon’s Alexa software, which runs on its Echo and Dot devices, have clear leads in consumer adoption.Voice is growing as an interface through which people interact with artificial intelligence. And AI isn’t just a change in how people access information, it’s the next jump in computing. Google can’t afford to lose ground in the battle for this coming ecosystem. People commonly refer to voice capabilities on Google devices as voice search even when they refer to other functions. The capabilities were introduced to Android as “Voice Actions” in 2010.
One of the latest pieces of software to incorporate voice capabilities is Assistant, an AI platform that runs on Google Home (which competes with the Echo), Google’s Pixel phone and later versions of Android. In addition to web results, Assistant can connect with other devices to allow users to control them by voice, integrate with third-party apps and pull up personal information like Google Calendar appointments. Assistant also works in text settings, but is mostly known to consumers as the voice that emanates from the Home device.Gaining traction with voice, and making money from it, will require Google to overcome a number of hurdles.Google has not shared a plan for how it will make money from voice tools like Assistant and Voice Search. CEO Sundar Pichai emphasized during the fourth-quarter earnings call in January that it’s early days for voice, and Google’s focus was on making sure Google tools were available and useful to consumers at all times. But right now, Google is not letting advertisers or businesses buy their way into voice results the way they can buy a slot at the top of a search results page. So when you hear an answer from your Home device, no one paid Google to put that there.Google could still make money through e-commerce the way Amazon does with Echo, but Google trails Amazon in product search and in online shopping generally. Catching up to its competitor and then spinning shopping into a main source of revenue for a key piece of software seems unlikely. In March, Google Home devices played what sounded a lot like an ad, though Google said it wasn’t an ad at all. The spot was a promotion for the Disney film “Beauty and the Beast.” When users asked Home for a preview of their schedules by saying, “Okay Google, tell me about my day,” Google appended the rundown by also saying, “by the way, Disney’s live action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ opens today.”Google said at the time it wasn’t a paid promotion, but it does give you an idea of how an ad could work in a voice setting. The problem, however, is it might be harder to get people used to these kinds of promotions. People complained when Google started showing paid search links, but users could still choose to not click. It’s harder to ignore or skip a paid audio ad. If Google wants to hold its own with voice, it needs to sell Home devices and Pixel phones, which run Google’s AI software.Google says its AI-enabled Assistant is actually available much more broadly. A recent update on later versions of Android means 200 million devices should be getting access to it.
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