Google is trying to catch up with Amazon in the latest round of home automation attempts


There’s a new “war” going on for your home. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard about it. Firstly, it’s only really just “erupted” and, secondly, the two main competing services aren’t strictly available in South Africa.

Last week Google has its annual developer conference where it announces all of its big projects for the year. Called Google I/O (which is the acronym for input/output, a computing term) it’s where the now defunct Google Glass was premiered and other so-called moon-shot (or bold, seemingly impossible) ideas appear.

Amazon EchoThe big announcement this year is Google Home (below) – a voice-controlled internet-connected device that lets you make search queries just by talking to it – or a range of other so-called concierge services like sending emails, making or changing calendar appointments, etc, etc. Google announced a new a messaging app called Allo; which is brave (or foolish) given Google’s inability to crack social media – anyone ever use Wave or Buzz or Google+?

These voice assistants have been a big trend for a few years, with varying success. Apple’s Siri is arguably the most well-known and most mature. There is also Google’s own voice-prompted searching; while Microsoft’s assistant is called Cortana; and last year Amazon introduced Alexa. Facebook is testing a service called M.

google_home_4This is the war that’s erupted. Well, this week’s war. There have been others, most notably for your living room – where consoles from Microsoft and Sony where thought to be the next frontier of computing, but weren’t – while recent forays have come from  Apple TV, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV. These small devices effectively allow you to turn your TV (if it isn’t a smart TV which can run a number of apps itself) into an extension of the internet. They have had limited success, especially in SA because most of the services haven’t been available – until Netflix arrived in January – and require, like the new war, decent broadband internet speeds.

Amazon’s Echo has been around for a while, and from all reports appears to be very efficient. It’s obviously tied to the e-commerce store and works optimally in countries that have an Amazon presence, notably its United States home market. Google hasn’t given a price of the slickly designed Home unit, but Amazon’s speaker-shaped Echo costs US$180 (R2,800), and can already be used to order a car from Uber and pizza from Domino’s.

At first glance Google’s offering is more likely to be more useful. Google’s vast catalogue of search data means it’s much better, and quicker, at giving results; even predicting and autocompleting the most popular requests. This network effect might finally be the key to making these virtual assistants go mainstream beyond us long-suffering geeks.

I use Siri a lot – to dictate text messages or call people while driving – and its voice-recognition quality has gotten better over the years. (A tip of South Africans it to change Siri’s accent to Australian English, which allows the service to identify our deep, guttural voices better.)

The obvious privacy fears about Google Home or Amazon Echo is that these devices are always listening. Most household conversation are inanities about “where’s the cremora” but it does open a can of word-worms, doesn’t it?

Google and Amazon might say they don’t care what you say, and aren’t monitoring it; and only action a request when you say “OK Google”. But imagine the scenario if they do care, or do listen in. What happens if you home voice assistant gets hacked and people can glibly listen to your conversations. There’s a counter argument that the Kardashians already force us to listen to the inanities of their daily lives – and even these so-called celebrities aren’t interesting. To me at least.

But what happens if we shift – as appears to be the case – towards our voice being our passwords, as is already offered by numerous apps and services, including the Vodacom app on my iPhone. A few recordings of you saying things like “it’s not inside, it’s on top” might be enough for your identity to be stolen.

This article first appeared on Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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