Hey Alexa and Google Assistant, how's that world takeover plan going?

Amazon and Google want their respective voice assistants to be everywhere this year. How far have they made it?

Andrew Gebhart Former senior producer
6 min read
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At this point, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant don't have a lot left to prove in terms of the basic appeal of the virtual, voice-driven assistant. Smart speakers and other devices that house Alexa and Google Assistant have become commonplace, and both assistants get similar updates so often that we've come to expect that when one reveals a new feature, the other will follow shortly.

At the start of 2018 at CES, we learned that Amazon and Google had set their sights on whole new horizons for their smart assistants. Both wanted to push beyond the borders of the home and spread their assistants everywhere, while giving consumers richer choices and experiences. At the midpoint of 2018, it's time to ask how Amazon and Google have progressed towards those goals.

Assistants everywhere?

"If voice is going to be everywhere, you want to see voice transition from the home, when you get into your car. … You'd also want it at work," said Steve Rabuchin, Amazon's vice president of Alexa Voice Service and Alexa Skills told CNET back in January. "We're going off into auto and these other places because we believe voice is a natural interface and it should be ambient."

Since then, Alexa hasn't made many significant advances into the office -- Alexa for Business was announced last year, and it's still in development -- but Amazon has taken more concrete steps to brings its digital assistant into cars and hotels.

Watch this: Amazon's Alexa is coming to your hotel room

In June, Amazon launched Alexa for Hospitality. Participating hotels will be able to customize Alexa's responses to fit various hotel services. Guests can order room service, call the front desk, get recommendations for nearby restaurants and perhaps even control the smart lights and smart blinds in their room.

Alexa is doing more out on the open road as well. The 2019 Lexus ES hits dealers this September with Alexa built into the infotainment system. Other manufacturers have promised built-in Alexa for years, but the ES is finally making it happen. If you don't want to buy an expensive new car with the built-in assistant, a handful of mobile Bluetooth accessories like the Speak Music's Muse are available right now with Alexa built-in.

Alexa 101: What you should know about Amazon's AI assistant

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While Amazon has to work to integrate Alexa into cars seemingly one brand at a time, Google has already done a lot of the legwork, as Android Auto is fairly widespread. Google simply added Google Assistant to Android Auto earlier this year, and it's already built into many more vehicles than Alexa, including at least some cars from almost every major manufacturer.

Google and Android Auto show that the search giant can leverage its far reaching network of technology to give Google Assistant an advantage over Alexa. Even so, Google hasn't made the same inroads into hotels and offices. Instead, Google has focused its 2018 efforts on making its smarter assistant even more competent in the home.

The ongoing battle at home

Google Assistant 101: Get to know Google's voice-activated helper

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At Google's annual developer conference in May, the company showed off a number of new features for Google Assistant.

Continued conversation keeps the mic hot after you give a command, so you can keep talking more naturally without having to say the wake words "OK Google" or "Hey Google" every time. Customizable routines allow you to command multiple smart home devices at once and do other actions like play a podcast from a simple phrase such as "Good Morning." The company even showed off a skill which can require your kids to say "please" when they issue a command to Google Assistant.

Watch this: Google Assistant can force your kid to say please and keeps the mic hot

While all of these changes are welcome, they mostly serve as a reminder that Google Assistant is still trying to catch up to Alexa in the home in terms of all-around usability. Amazon had already rolled out a follow-up mode for Alexa that functions the same as Google's Continued Conversation. Alexa also has a kid-specific smart speaker and customizable routines.

Google also padded Assistant's basic stats. It now works with over 5,000 devices and every major smart home brand. An Amazon representative put their company's number at more than 12,000. That extra 7,000 devices for Amazon might not make much difference to you if the device you want works with both services -- and chances are it does -- but the number serves as a reminder that support for Alexa is more widespread.

Ready for Duplex?

While Alexa has more skills and devices than Google Assistant, Amazon's assistant doesn't have anything like Duplex. Google Duplex can call businesses such as restaurants and perform tasks like making a reservation on your behalf. Duplex even sounds like a human in action. Check out the demo if you haven't heard it yet.

Watch this: Robot or human? Google Assistant will leave you guessing

Google plans on rolling Duplex out slowly, as a robot that can call people and trick them into thinking it's human raises a variety of ethical questions, though Google has confirmed that Duplex will self-identify as a robot during calls.

Duplex also shows that digital assistants are closer than we think to sounding and engaging with us in a more natural, human fashion -- whether we want that or not. It could also be a significant leap for Google Assistant that Amazon will have trouble replicating.

The smart display roadmap

Alexa is still built into more devices than Google Assistant, but Google's upcoming smart displays will help it catch up on that front. Google partnered with Lenovo, LG , JBL and Sony for its smart displays, as opposed to releasing one under its own name. Google wanted to give its customers options. At CES, Gummi Hafsteinsson, the product management director for Google Assistant, emphasized that as far as rolling out smart displays, Google is "doing it in a way that makes sense to the user to so they get the choice they want."


The Lenovo Smart Display will give Google Assistant a touchscreen.

Josh Miller/CNET

The smart displays will compete with the Amazon Echo Show , which similarly lets you talk to it like a smart speaker, and use its screen to read answers, watch videos and make video calls.

We thought the screen on the Echo Show could be more useful, so Google's smart displays perhaps have an advantage with Youtube compatibility. Google pulled Youtube from the Echo Show last year as the battle between the two companies heated up.

The smart displays also serve as a clever roadmap for Google's large community of developers to create their own devices. The smart displays all make use of Android Things, a trimmed down version of the company's mobile operating system meant for simple smart devices. Google's smart displays show developers what's possible with Android Things, and an Android Things starter kit is available to buy so any interested hobbyist can start tinkering on the next big thing.

There's a dizzying number of Alexa devices not made by Amazon

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For now, Alexa is more versatile than Google Assistant. Amazon isn't resting on its lead either. It acquired smart doorbell maker Ring earlier this year, rolled out better calendar controls, and increased Alexa's ability to understand context so you don't need to repeat as much information when asking multiple questions in a row. The acquisition of Ring can help Amazon counter the duo of Google and Nest, and Google Assistant has long worked with Google Calendar and understood context.

Pushing boundaries

The novelty may have worn off for both Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Ultimately, 2018 has been about exploring new horizons for both assistants, and both companies are indeed working to push the boundaries of voice services. You might talk to Alexa in your hotel room soon, or you might pick up a call and get Google Assistant on the other end. Both assistants are getting smarter and becoming more widespread. They may not be everywhere yet, but they're continuing down that path and the way forward looks clear.

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