LAS VEGAS — Sin City has served as the backdrop to some of the most famous bouts and rematches in fighting history, and last week it was home to another. However, this contest wasn’t between two fighters seeking a title, it was a battle of two of the four most valuable companies on earth, specifically their respective digital assistants.
The venue was CES — the world’s largest consumer technology show with more than 188,000 attendees — and the judges were the thousands of device makers showing off their newest gadgets. Continuing a trend from last year, Amazon and Google are vying to become the champion of the digital assistant market and get Alexa and the Google Assistant, respectively, in as many devices as possible.
Google and Amazon have been inescapable at CES. Amazon Alexa and Amazon Web Services banners peppered the halls of the Venetian’s convention center. The phrase “Hey Google” sat atop Google’s massive amusement park-like booth, wrapped around the Las Vegas monorail and blazed across huge banners at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the home base of the conference.
And it wasn’t just a marketing stunt; both companies showed up in countless product announcements, all without actually unveiling any new products of their own.
To kick off the convention, Google made a flurry of announcements for the Google Assistant, including a new Interpreter Mode, a smart alarm clock from Lenovo and much more. But a new platform to help device makers put the Google Assistant into simple, low-cost gadgets could turn out to be the most important announcement this week from Google.
Amazon unveiled a variety of new products from its subsidiary Ring, and new options for the in-home delivery program Key by Amazon. A huge list of companies showed off an extensive array of devices that either have Alexa built in or work with the digital assistant.
We saw everything from an Alexa-powered bicycle, to toilets, to in-car entertainment systems and smartphone mounts and even glasses this week. The volume of Alexa-powered products was so huge that at the end of each day, Amazon sent out a new list, each one with bulleted rundown of Alexa-related announcements from various companies. GeekWire counted more than 100 total third-party Alexa announcements in areas such as smart home, automotive and TVs and computers.
“Our approach has always been whatever we build, we build to show what can be done — it’s the art of the possible,” Miriam Daniel, vice president for Echo and Alexa, said in an interview with GeekWire. “Then, in parallel, we build all the APIs, the tool kits, the SDK, so that our partners can actually go build and sometimes they come up with ideas that we haven’t thought of.”
And what was Daniel’s favorite Alexa-powered product to come out of CES? That would be the Lenovo Smart Tab, which she called her “favorite baby.” It has the same visual and voice dynamic, as well as smart home control, of the Echo Show. But it is also a docked tablet that is portable and can be used for more things than your typical smart display.
In addition to new digital assistant tie-ins, the two companies this week also released some numbers to show the ubiquity of their virtual brains, though neither company shared an active user count. Here’s Google’s latest metrics:
- The Google Assistant is now on 1 billion devices, up from 500 million in May, an increase that comes mostly from Android smartphones with it built in.
- The number of active Google Assistant users quadrupled in 2018, but the company didn’t disclose the actual number.
- Google Assistant works with more than 10,000 different home automation devices overall across 1,600 brands.
- Assistant now works in 30 languages and is available in 80 countries.
And here’s what Amazon disclosed:
- Lifetime sales of Echo and other Alexa-powered Amazon devices exceeded 100 million.
- Alexa has surpassed 70,000 capabilities, aka “skills.”
- In total there are more than 150 products with Alexa-built in natively, from headphones and PCs, to cars and smart home devices.
- The number of total smart home devices compatible with Alexa is now 28,000 from 4,500 brands.
Amazon displayed its own products as well as numerous offerings from other parties at a sprawling booth that had its own room just down the hall from one of the convention centers. Spokespeople with white “Amazon Alexa” jackets showed off the latest products and ushered people through glass pods of smart home setups and cars with Alexa Auto.
Google followed up last year’s ridiculous display — complete with a slide — with even more pizzazz. This time around, a Google Assistant-oriented rollercoaster snaked through the multi-story “Google Playground.” Google set aside areas dedicated to its own products as well as displays for third-party devices that support Google Assistant.
Google also had folks in all0white getups, similar to the year before, shuttling people into cars set up to play with Google Assistant on the go. On the way out there was even a patisserie.
That both companies dedicated so much of their displays to third-party devices shows how much they want to build ecosystems around their digital assistants. Amazon has certainly taken the lead in this regard, as the decision years ago to open up Alexa to developers and device makers continues to pay off. Daniel cited an event at Amazon headquarters last year — where the company announced more than a dozen products, including an Alexa-powered microwave, a wall clock, an amplifier and more — noting that the flurry of new products represents just a drop in the bucket compared to what its partners are doing.
“I know we announced nearly a dozen products at the September launch event, but through 2018, our partners have built more than 100 products,” Daniel said. “So if you think about it, our products are just 10 percent and partner products are 90 percent.”
Even as Google has reportedly narrowed the gap in sales between the Google Home and Amazon’s Echo, the tech giant is still playing catch up in its appeal to third parties. That’s why Google Assistant Connect could be the biggest thing to come out of CES for the search giant.
The program is designed to make it easier for device makers to build inexpensive gadgets that perform specific functions controlled by and integrated with the Google Assistant. Google showed off a couple of prototypes at a press event: a small e-ink pad that was pasted on a refrigerator and showed commute times and a tiny button that could be used to activate a Google Assistant controlled device. Lilian Rincon, director of product management Google, said the program will debut in preview mode later this year and should enable a whole new set of Google Assistant devices.
“This is going to enable device manufacturers to create these devices at a lower cost and also from a user perspective, make them much easier to set up,” Rincon said. “These are problems that we have learned about from users, and it’s something that users expect from us.”
Both companies played coy about their future plans for the digital assistants. In the present, Amazon and Google are focused on making the conversations people have with Alexa and the Google Assistant more fluid.
Behshad Behzadi, distinguished engineer for Google Assistant, showed how the assistant can have a contextual conversation and answer questions in a variety of ways. Behzadi asked a question about the Backstreet Boys, followed up by a question about the name of the members in the band. Google Assistant was able to recognize that they were still talking about the Backstreet Boys.
Google Assistant was also able to answer some complicated and vague questions, like this one: “What is the name of the volcano in Iceland that no one can pronounce the name of?” The answer is easier to type than say: Eyjafjallajökull.
“When we talk about conversation, one of the most important things is context,” Behzadi said. “When we talk with each other, we always use context so we don’t repeat ourselves every time in each sentence, and it’s thanks to the context that you understand most of the things that we’re saying to each other. The past few years we have been investing a lot on trying to improve our potential in this area of the assistant.”
Google boasts the backing of its leading search engine to help answer questions, a major advantage. Amazon has its own plan to beef up Alexa’s knowledge base, and it is turning to some of its customers to fill in the gaps for the digital assistant. Amazon has been testing the Alexa Answers program internally, and the company said last month that a beta program has produced “100,000 responses which have been given to customers millions of times.”
Simplifying the smart home has long been a big part of Alexa, and it will continue to be a key priority going forward. Amazon is focused on making the digital assistant a more “ambient Alexa,” which adds value to the home. Daniel gave an example of the new Alexa Guard program — where Alexa listens for things like a smoke alarm or shattered glass when no one is home and sends a notification with something is amiss — to show the value the company wants Alexa to have for people.
“Up until now it’s been about, you asked, you get something,” Daniel said. “But Alexa can do much more.”