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Smart Home

Google Home needs a surprise to step out of Alexa's shadow

Google is expected to unveil a device similar to the Amazon Echo Dot on Wednesday, but it has the pieces in place to do more.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Google's smart home may be about to grow up, and I'd like to see it gain some independence in the process.

As Google announces the next Pixel phone on Wednesday, rumors abound that the search giant will also unveil a smaller, more affordable version of its Google Home smart speaker, dubbed Google Home Mini. Google could also debut a possible premium version of Google Home and maybe even a Google Home with a screen.

While I like the idea of Google expanding its smart speaker lineup, I want to see Google announce a smart home product that's not just another version of an Amazon Echo device. Google Home was obviously inspired by the similar Amazon Echo, and the Google Home Mini should replicate the Echo Dot. A Home with a screen would line up with the Echo Show, and a more powerful premium version of the Home could remind customers of the Echo Plus as well as Apple's upcoming HomePod.

Google has done an admirable job of developing its current Home speaker. Even though the Echo is two years older, Google Home now has a comparable number of smart home partners and abilities. That said, to truly bring the Home out of Amazon's shadow, Google needs to stop chasing Amazon and surprise us with a unique device of its own.

The thrill of the chase

Last week, Amazon announced six new products in the Echo family, including the Echo Plus and a smaller Echo with a screen. Even as Google Home has largely caught up with the Echo in terms of features, Amazon leads in device versatility, especially after its announcements last week. 

While it's arguable that Amazon now has too many Echo devices, the company deserves credit for continuing to find new, useful ways to package Alexa,  Amazon's digital assistant. For example, the Echo Show lets you use Alexa to make video calls, and the Echo Look turns Alexa into a fashion adviser.

On top of Amazon's first-party devices, other companies have used Alexa's open API to build the technology into an even wider variety of gadgets. GE has an Alexa lamp. LG built Alexa into a fridge. Google's own voice assistant, dryly called the Google Assistant, is only available in speakers and phones for now.

But Google has taken steps to change that, launching a developer kit for Assistant this spring. Still, we're just now seeing third-party products launch with Assistant, and so far, they're only speakers and phones. It's perfectly reasonable for creative new devices to take time to surface with only a few months for development, but in the meantime Amazon keeps adding devices to its lead.

google-home-mini1-980x637

According to Droid Life, this is a leaked pic of the Google Home Mini.

Droid Life

In terms of sales, Echo devices are way ahead of the Google lineup. Amazon accounts for 70 percent of smart speaker sales, with Google a distant second, according to eMarketer. The $50 Echo Dot (£50, unavailable in Australia) is Amazon's bestseller. The Dot packs the full power of Alexa into a small, affordable package. Plus, it plugs into your house's stereo system so you can use Alexa to play music on your speaker of choice.

We loved the Dot when we reviewed it, and last spring, I argued that Google needed a competitive device -- a smaller, more affordable Google Home that mainstream customers can scoop up without too much consideration. It certainly looks like Google will deliver that on Wednesday with the Google Home Mini.

If the Mini does exist, and if it's good, it'll be an important part of Google's smart home lineup and could help the search giant catch up to Amazon in smart speaker sales. So the Mini is a necessary move by Google, but it's still the move of a company playing catchup.

Google could keep imitating Amazon's successful products, but if it wants to capture more than just a slice of the other 30 percent of the market, Google needs to forge a new trail for its Assistant. Fortunately for Google, there are still a few fertile areas remaining where Google can beat Amazon to the punch.

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What else is there?

At the top of my wish list for a surprise device would be a Google router with the Google Assistant built in. Google already has a router called Google Wifi, which uses three identical units that you can spread out to create a Wi-Fi "mesh" signal throughout your home.

The Echo took a piece of familiar hardware -- a speaker -- and made it feel fresh by adding Alexa and microphones so it would respond to voice commands. Google could do the same thing with a device most of us need to have anyway.

A microphone-equipped, multiunit Google Wifi package would distribute Google Assistant access all around your home. Better yet, a Google Home version of Google Wifi would add some excitement to an ordinary but necessary device, not unlike what Nest did for the thermostat.

A television that doubled as a Google Home would also break new ground, and like the router, it could bring the Assistant into your life via a consumer electronic device you might plan to purchase regardless.

Amazon doesn't have an Alexa-enabled router, but it does technically have an Alexa-enabled TV: the Element Fire TV. But the Element isn't voice-activated itself (neither are the upcoming model from Toshiba or the comparable models from Westinghouse and Sony). You can pair the Element with any Echo device to control it with your voice, or you can press a button on the TV's remote to give a command.

As it stands, Google will add Assistant capabilities to existing Android TV devices later this year. Like Amazon, Google has streaming boxes running the company's software. A few companies such as Sony also make TVs with Android TV built in. Like the Element TV with Alexa, the Sony TVs still require you to push a button on your remote to talk to the TV.

The next step seems simple: add a few microphones to one of those Sony TVs and you'll have a TV version of the Google Home. In practice, adding microphones to a TV in a spot where you're not reducing screen size and they can still hear you over the sound of the television could be difficult. One way around this could be building an always listening microphone into the TV's remote, but that would certainly put strain on the remote's battery.

So a Google Home TV might not be easy to make, but it would be cool, useful and unique.

Waiting for Google

Google has a lot of the pieces already in place to build the Assistant into something new and to step out of Amazon's shadow. Google makes routers and has TVs with the company's software built in. Making one of those double as a Google Home would provide useful functionality and a dose of coolness to tech we already use.

The devices Google is likely to unveil on Wednesday will continue to replicate the Echo line. The competition between Google and Amazon on the smart speaker front is a good thing for consumers, as the companies push each other to add more features and functionality. For the sake of that competition, I hope Google surprises us with a broader variety of Assistant-equipped devices, and soon.

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