Google Launching Home AI Competitor To “Accidental Winner” Amazon Echo This Week

If growing up on Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns taught us anything, it’s that the future would be brought to us by computers that could recognize our voice commands and do whatever we asked. And while none of the products on the market today sound like the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, we are still surrounded by machine-generated female voices that answer our questions, queue up our favorite tunes, and dim our room lights on request. But the dominant player in that space is one that, just a few years ago, nobody would have expected — because it’s Amazon, not Google, connecting homes.

Google is planning to unveil its connected-home, smart, talking hub — Google Home — on Thursday. But, as the New York Times reports, Amazon has spent the last several years getting there first… and that puts Google in the rare position of trying to play catch-up on intelligent tech.

It all started with the Amazon Echo. The smart speaker, which showcased Amazon’s Alexa “assistant” software, launched just in time for holiday 2014 and proved surprisingly popular. Since then, Amazon has consistently added new features and skills to Alexa’s repertoire. Amazon also continues to expand Alexa to new devices and to enter partnerships with other companies, like Sonos, to bring their devices into Alexa’s purview.

Amazon has also been expanding its hardware into teeny tiny Echo Dots that can be put basically anywhere in your home. Since September, Amazon even sells them in six- and 12-packs — yes, like beer — so that you can put one in every room fairly effortlessly.

That means Amazon has a two-year head start on Google, which is officially unveiling Google Home in an event on Thursday. (The company first announced back in May but it is the modern way of things that the first tease is not the true unveiling.)

Google Home, which the NYT describes (not inaccurately) as looking “a little like an air freshener,” is expected to go on sale in the coming weeks in order to be on store shelves and in Christmas stockings for holiday 2016.

Rather than picking a lady-name — like Cortana, Siri, or Alexa — Google for now is calling its AI “The Assistant.” (If this calls to mind for you images of Doctor Who companions, well, you’re not alone.) The Assistant has already been built into one Google messaging app, and the company plans to continue to add it to new hardware going forward.

Experts, though, are kind of baffled that Amazon managed to beat Google to the punch. The retailer, the NYT notes, has a “notoriously uneven” track record. For every success like Kindle or Prime, there’s a whole trash heap of unwanted Fire Phones.

That leads one expert to call Amazon the “accidental winner,” in connected digital assistants, adding, “Amazon got there first, which is superimpressive, and it has been a huge hit.”

Google hasn’t necessarily been resting on its laurels, analysts note, but it is facing strong competition on almost every front: self-driving cars, web-hosting services, home entertainment tech, phone hardware — in basically everything except search, someone, somewhere, is queuing up to take a bite out of the tech giant’s plans.

Google, Lagging Amazon, Races Across the Threshold Into the Home [New York Times]