Breaking down the difference between the Amazon Echo and Google Home
Quick: What does the “S” in Harry S. Truman stand for? Do you have enough milk in your refrigerator to make smoothies? If you didn’t know the answers to those questions, you could have simply asked your Amazon Echo and Google Home assistants to find out, since you are likely among the millions of households now boasting at least part of these artificial intelligence ecosystems. If you aren’t (or if you answered “Who?” and “What refrigerator?”), then you may want to get some insight on the two devices: Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Can you hear me now?
The race is on between the Amazon Echo and Google Home to become the number-one voice-enabled ecosystem in the world. Voice is seen as the future of human-computer interactions (HCIs) because of its ubiquity in the human experience. The end goal for voice-enabled systems developers is to create a seamless network of voice computing platforms, eventually replacing your smartphone and tablet (and as many other devices as possible). These platforms will manage every aspect of the user’s life and environment, from the mundane, such as scheduling doctor appointments and adjusting the thermostat, to the extraordinary, such as helping plan retirements.
The Amazon Echo and Google Home are the main competitors today (however, other vendors will likely try to gain a piece of the action. Stay tuned). Both companies are taking the long view on voice and are doing whatever it takes to increase the distribution of their systems. For example, they have used price cuts to drive sales. While some experts have estimated that these price cuts resulted in a hit to the companies’ bottom lines, these megacorps understand what the real prize is: data. By lowering prices, making the devices easy to use, incorporating a constantly evolving set of additional abilities that can be integrated with devices upon demand, and encouraging use through media outlets, Amazon Echo and Google Home stand to reap an incredible information harvest for their makers.
Everything about a family and its dwelling can be seen in light of data, from the temperature inside the home at various times of the day to what the children listen to when the parents are away. These unique data sets are solid gold. Initially, this data will likely be utilized to enhance the voice ecosystems and company products, but it will eventually be repackaged for other companies and organizations, especially marketers.
Cornering the market is key to success for voice ecosystems. Google will likely capitalize on its well-known and trusted search capability to enhance its reputation and branch off into other areas of data usage. Amazon, of course, would love to offer more opportunities to shop and realize growth in untapped areas.
Crack open that wallet
Amazon Echo is the hands-down winner for branded voice-enabled devices (eight Amazon devices are priced here, with a mere three for Google). However, both ecosystems can be augmented via other devices and enhanced through the addition of skills (Amazon’s Alexa) or actions (Google Assistant), which are basically apps that can be added to the system that allow users greater functionality. For example, both ecosystems can incorporate the Philips Hue smart lighting system, Nest and Honeywell thermostats, TP-Link HS110 smart plugs and the Samsung SmartThings hub. Amazon offers a broad range of Alexa-enabled devices: Echo Plus ($139.99), Connect ($34.99), Dot ($49), Spot ($129.99), Button ($19.99), Show ($229.99) and Tap ($129.99). There’s even an Echo Dot for kids, priced at $79.99, although some users have grumbled about its functionality.
Google Home is currently lightening your pocket to the tune of $99 (regularly listed at $129), with the Google Home Max at $399. The Google Home Mini was sale priced at $29 toward the end of 2017 to help boost holiday sales, but as of this writing, it was available for $39.
Be wary of only judging the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices on price. While Google products are pricier than Amazon’s, this is likely because the company is working out the kinks in its system. The Amazon system is quickly maturing (the pivotal product, Amazon Echo, is already in its 2.0 phase), while Google’s ecosystem is still in its infancy. While neither company has released exact, verifiable figures on the number of units shipped, both claim that millions of voice-enabled devices were sold. Earlier in the year, Google indicated that about 7 million units of its Google Home devices were shipped over the winter holiday season, with the likely majority of these sales being the Mini. Amazon went a step further by indicating that tens of millions of its voice-enabled products were shipped, and it’s likely that most of these items were the Dot.
Amazon Echo and Google Home Hardwiring the Home
The devices in the Amazon ecosystem vary somewhat in their hardware specs (for example, neither the Button nor Connect have a 3.5-mm audio port, and they must connect to an Alexa-enabled device to operate). The Echo Spot (2.5-inch screen) and Show (7-inch screen) allow for some visual interaction and include a camera capability. Except for the Button and Connect, all the devices boast speakers with a reasonably good quality.
The relatively compact Google Home device weighs in at a little over a pound and offers a speaker with a 2-inch driver and dual 2-inch passive radiators. The Google Home Mini (comparable to Amazon’s Dot) charges with a micro-USB, and the device basically responds to taps (on top for on and off, with the volume on the sides of the device). The Google Home Max is a sound powerhouse with 4.5-inch woofers coupled with tweeters. It has a 3.5-mm auxiliary jack and USB-C port to connect to ethernet.
Incidentally, Google is somewhat ahead of the game when it comes to chips. It has been using its proprietary application-specific integrated circuit processor tensor processing unit to manage its AI functionalities. Google is playing the long game in regards to its machine learning capabilities. Amazon has only recently decided to enter the processor arena and is expected to begin replacing its Echo chips with its newer (hopefully better) chip.
Points for the assist: Alexa versus Google Assistant
The Alexa and Google Assistant deliver answers to information-based queries and offer similar functionalities for the smart home (of course, playing music is foundational to this experience). Since they are programmed to respond in certain ways, this may mean that you have to rephrase your question if you do not always use standard English forms or grammar. You may also have issues if you speak a form of English that is not easily recognized by the system, such as regional U.S. dialects or with an accent. (Incidentally, Professor Alan Black, who hails from Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, indicated that the AI assistants are teaching users to respond in appropriate ways: “When you say things … to Alexa and she doesn’t understand you, you stop doing that.”)
Mad skills (and actions)
Developing simple apps for the Amazon Echo and Google Home voice assistants is relatively painless, since both companies have created user-friendly development environments. Alexa developers create skills, and Assistant developers create actions.
To create a basic Alexa skill, you can begin with the simple walk-through at //developer.amazon.com/alexa-skills-kit/alexa-skill-python-tutorial. Custom skills can be created at //developer.amazon.com/docs/custom-skills/steps-to-build-a-custom-skill.html. With Alexa, you will be utilizing AWS Lambda with Node.js, Java, Python, or C#. You can also build and host your own web service with your chosen provider (and, of course, any language). However, once you begin to marry the process or flow of your skill with data that engages yours users, you may to call in some development experts
Developing Smart Home actions for Google Assistant is not exactly like creating other apps for the AI, but the company provides a five-step guide for developers to follow at //developers.google.com/actions/smarthome/create-app. Developers, however, will need to set up the OAuth 2 server to obtain the access token.
Creating basic skills and actions for the Amazon Echo and Google Home is not excessively challenging for a knowledgeable developer. The interfaces and development environments vary somewhat, but individual preferences will really drive whether you like one or the other or need more complex development.
With a growing skill library of more than 26,000 skills, Amazon comes out on top for sheer volume of possibilities. According to the Amazon site, there are thousands of popular skills with a five-star rating. You can allow Alexa to access Lyft or Uber to catch a ride, make donations to your favorite charity, get some dinner ideas from a Campbell’s kitchen skill or just order pizza from Dominos. Other popular skills include Jeopardy! (Sony Picture Television), Sleep Sounds: Ocean Waves (VoiceApps LLC) and Song Quiz (Volley Inc.).
There are about 2,000 actions for Google Assistant, but that number is expected to explode as more developers begin to get their feet wet with actions. Some of the most popular functionalities are linked to music (you can have a seamless music experience by planting a few devices around your place). You can use the Assistant to help with planning your day, but you will need to log into your Google account. You can also get the Assistant to call Uber and, of course, pizza, but the breadth of available actions is still limited.
The end of the matter
It’s safe to say that the Amazon Echo and Google Home voice-enabled platforms will enjoy an expanding market share and will likely eventually replace that smartphone and tablet you lug around with you everywhere. From a user point of view, the Amazon ecosystem might make more sense simply because it offers a greater range of abilities right now. However, the Google platform will eventually power up and will likely become a much better system. Developers should be able to create skills and actions, and there’s really no need to shy away from getting your feet wet now by getting your own custom apps out there. Whether you are an Amazon fan, a Googler or entirely neutral, there’s no denying that voice is the future – how will you be a part of it?