A short version of this article appears in Vale Life Aug/Sept 2017
If the pundits are to believed, the age of the smartphones and apps is coming to an end. Apparently as soon as 2020 they will no longer be the preferred means of the general Public obtaining information. What will?
The answer is Speech and AI assistants apparently
These systems have been packaged up as Digital or AI Assistants. Smart phones and computers have had some form of digital assistants for some time (Cortana for Windows, Siri for Apple, Google Assistant for Android. These systems are now expanding into the home, the two big players are Amazon Echo and Google Home. Apple has recently announced the HomePod speaker, incorporating SIRI, for $349, and won’t be available in the UK until 2018.
The Amazon Echo was originally launched in Sept 2016 in the UK , £149, and the smaller echo dot version, £49, in October 2016. They both have the same capabilities but the Echo has better speakers for music playback.
The larger Echo reminds me of the monolith in “2001 – A space Odyssey” for some reason.
The device cannot be configured directly, all configuration is performed through the Alexa smartphone app or the via the Alexa Website.
Alexa does not automatically know where you are so part of the setup required you to enter the device location.
Once complete, the Dot is always listening waiting for you to say the wake word. By default this is “Alexa”, but for trekkies, it will also recognise “Computer”.
In use, I found the Dot understood me even when music was playing in the background. It will learn your individual speech patterns and personal preferences the more you use it.
Google Home was launched in the UK in April @ £129. Only the one version is available which looks to me like a flower vase of room freshner. Setup again requires an app which links the device to your local network and also configures wifi access, and any other account details.
One current advantage Google Home has over Alexa is that it can be configured to support multiple user voices. Up to 6 different people can be recognised by the device. This allows for individual calendars, music playlists etc to be used.
It is not possible though to change the wake word, so you are forever stuck with saying “OK Google” or “Hey Google”.
So how well do they work?
A recent survey by 360i tested each system with 3000 questions and found that Google Home was 6 times more likely yo give you a correct answer over Amazon Echo. I must say that my personal tests did not bear this out, but I didn’t get as far as asking 3000 questions!
To play music, requires a subscription, either to Amazon Music, Google Play Music or Spotify. Both also support TuneIn for Digital Radio. I was disappointed to find that neither would support my local digital music library, but perhaps this is not that surprising as they probably want to upsell you to their own service.
Both will control your Phillip Hue lights, as well as other Smart home Appliances from the big names such as Nest and Belkin.
One oddity is that Amazon Echo is better at integrating to Google services than Google is; Echo can add entries to your Google Calendar, Google Home cannot.
Google is fully integrated with Chromecast so you can ask it to play videos, whereas Echo cannot control the Amazon Fire TV products.
Amazon has the edge in integration at the moment with over 15000 “skills” or extensions which can be added to provide a whole host of capabilities, such as ordering a pizza or an Uber. Google is a bit further behind with their extensions called “actions”.
It is clear that it is still early days for both products, which constant announcements from each company, extending the utility of their systems.
At this point, Amazon has the edge but I don’t think that this will last much longer.