Google wants to knock Amazon's Echo off its perch at the center of the smart home, and it will use a device called Home to do it.
Ben Fox RubinFormer senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
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Google offers up billions of answers to queries every day. Now the search giant thinks it has an answer to the Amazon Echo
At its annual I/O developer conference, Google on Wednesday revealed a new smart speaker that houses its "OK Google" digital voice assistant, offering one of the first major competitors to the Echo. The compact, plug-in speaker, coming out later this year, will be able to play music on speakers throughout the home, turn on lights, check the traffic and, of course, query Google search.
"Google Home will become more and more a control center for your whole home," Mario Queiroz, Google vice president of product management, said on stage at Wednesday's event. "It's like having a voice-activated remote control to the real world whenever you need it."
Google's entry underscores the notion that the home has increasingly become a battleground in tech, with companies scrambling to gain a piece of a new market that includes biometric door locks and refrigerators plastered with tablet screens. After launching in late 2014, the Echo has become a sleeper hit, with the cylindrical speaker letting people to use voice commands to control their connected lightbulbs and thermostats, order Domino's pizzas or check their bank balance.
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Thanks to all its features, the Echo has enjoyed early success as a hub for the connected home, with Amazon selling an estimated 3 million devices so far. But Google likely wants to deny Amazon that lofty position.
Google's parent Alphabet already spent $3.2 billion to buy Nest, which makes connected smoke alarms, webcams and thermostats, and Google would rather its hub -- not the Echo -- operate these products. Google and Amazon also have become fiercer rivals, with the tech titans fighting over consumer electronics, grocery deliveries and cloud storage services. Google Home, which was rumored to come out, provides yet another battlefront.
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Google's advantage in this fight could be its large portfolio of popular apps, including Google Maps, Google Photos and Google Calendar, as well as Nest's smart-home devices. Also, Google's digital assistant, known as "OK Google" or Google Now, already resides in Android smartphones and the Google search app. Having a device that can bring all those items together in an easy-to-use, voice-controlled speaker could give the Echo a run for its money. For example, Google executives said people will be able to use the Home to control their Nest devices or play music in different rooms using speakers enabled with Google Chromecast Audio.
The Echo, though, already works with Nest devices and Google Calendar, and includes more than 300 different capabilities, from reading Bible verses to ordering an Uber car.
"There certainly will be some catch-up that Google has to play," Gartner analyst Brian Blau said. "Not being first isn't that much of a disadvantage, but waiting too long can be. I don't think waiting too long has happened yet."
An Amazon representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Google Home can be personalized with different materials and colors, and may let users ask a broader range of questions than the Echo can manage, since Google's digital assistant connects to the company's powerful search platform.
"We're creating a new set of entry points into the conversation that you can have with Google," Scott Huffman, a search engineering executive at Google, said in an interview, "that are explicitly focused on this idea of having a natural conversation."
With the help of machine learning, the Google assistant will improve over time by learning a specific user's preferences and patterns. While "OK Google" will start as the Home's wake word, other options like "Hey Google" will be added.
Users will have the same privacy controls as they do with Google search histories, with users able to delete some or all their queries to the Google Home.
Google didn't yet disclose a price for its new device. The Echo is $180.
Google's new speaker increases the chances that devices will have more voice controls going forward, which could help people navigate complicated sets of commands without having to use a remote or touchscreen. Apple has worked to add its Siri digital assistant into more devices, as is Microsoft with its Cortana platform.
"The future of conversational user interfaces is pretty bright," Gartner's Blau said. "It seems that talking to your home is popular these days."
CNET's Richard Nieva and Sean Hollister contributed to this story.