Both Google Home ($99 at Walmart) and the Alexa speakers come with one very important feature: IFTTT support. Without it, Google Home would be relegated to only working with a handful of products, and the list of devices and services compatible with Alexa would be more than halved.
IFTTT support for Google Assistant and Alexa, however, are very different. While you can accomplish many of the same things, there are some key differences in what you can do with IFTTT using a Google Home or an Alexa speaker.
Applets for simple commands
In its simplest form, IFTTT support is just a way to connect your smart speaker to other devices and services. You can set up an Applet that turns on the lights of a smart bulb that wouldn't otherwise be compatible or make your phone ring so you can find it if you misplace it.
For Applets like this, Google Assistant has a few advantages. Not only are the phrases are more natural to say, you also have the option of using up to three different phrases to trigger the same Applet. For example, you might use:
- "Turn on the lights."
- "Turn the lights on."
- "Lights on."
When you say one of these commands, you don't have to say anything special either. Just say, "OK Google, turn on the lights" or "Hey Google, lights on."
With Alexa, each Applet has its own trigger phrase -- only one. For a similar Applet to the one above, you might use "lights on." When speaking the phrase to Alexa, you must preface the trigger phrase with the word "trigger." So, to run the Applet, you would have to say "Alexa, trigger lights on." It takes some getting used to and doesn't feel very natural to say, even after having used IFTTT Applets with Alexa for over a year. But it certainly gets the job done.
The beauty in the simplicity of Alexa's trigger phrase is that Applets can be stacked, meaning you can create multiple Applets with the same trigger phrase to group them together.
This can also be done with the Google Assistant service, but I've encountered more problems due to the increased complexity of Google Assistant triggers.
One thing Alexa has over Google with its IFTTT support is automation. You have the option to create Applets which run in the background. They fire whenever you do a specific task with your Alexa speaker, such as adding an item to your shopping list or ask when your favorite sports team's next game is.
This means you don't have to specifically ask for something. Instead, you use the Alexa speaker as you normally would, and other tasks will take place behind the scenes. There are 15 additional triggers for the Alexa IFTTT service which can be used for automation:
- Ask what's on your To Do List
- Item added to your To Do List
- Item completed on your To Do List
- Item edited on your To Do List
- Item deleted on your To Do List
- Ask what's on your Shopping List
- Item added to your Shopping List
- Item completed on your Shopping List
- Item edited on your Shopping List
- Item deleted on your Shopping List
- Ask for a sports team's score
- Ask for a sports team's next game
- New song played
- Your Alarm goes off
- Your Timer goes off
Here are a few examples of how these triggers can be used:
- If your Alexa timer goes off, blink the smart blubs around the house.
- If your Alexa timer goes off, turn off the GE oven.
- If you ask Alexa for a sports team's next game, add event to calendar.
- If you add an item to your Alexa shopping list, append the item to a note in Evernote.
With the Google Assistant service, there are no such automations possible through IFTTT.
Applets for more complex commands
With Alexa, you're limited to simple commands and background automations. And while the Google Assistant service doesn't offer those automations, it does offer something else: number and text parsing.
This adds a whole new element to IFTTT support for a smart speaker. It allows you to say a specific word or number (or both) and use them in the Applet.
For instance, without number parsing, your control over a smart thermostat with IFTTT and a smart speaker is limited. You would have to create Applets for different scenarios, all with different temperature settings. With number parsing, you can speak the temperature you want and pass that number through to a thermostat that your smart speaker doesn't officially support. You can do the same with smart bulb brightness, an oven's preheat temperature and much more.
The way this works is, when creating a new Applet using the Google Assistant channel, select either Say a phrase with a number, Say a phrase with a text ingredient or Say a phrase with both a number and a text ingredient. When constructing your phrases, place a dollar sign ($) where you want the text ingredient to be and a pound symbol (#) where the number will go. This might look like "Set the office lights to $ and # brightness."
A perfect example of how this might be useful is this Applet created by Google. It allows you to create a new contact with IFTTT and the Google Contacts channel. Just enable the Applet and say something like "OK Google, add John to my contacts. The number is [phone number]."
This could also be used for creating calendar entries, more complex to-do list items or even taking voice notes with Google Home.
Give and take
IFTTT support is a crucial piece of the puzzle for this new era of smart speakers. It takes some of the weight off the shoulders of Google and Amazon and brings support for hundreds of devices and services right out of the gate. And while Google and Amazon have different takes on how IFTTT support should work, neither is perfect.
The Alexa service on IFTTT is somewhat limited and saying "trigger" before a selected phrase will never feel or sound natural.
Meanwhile, the Google Assistant service has some kinks to iron out yet. Google seems to hang on to your Applet settings for a while, so if you change some phrases around or tweak some settings, you'll need to wait before those changes are reflected. The added functionality of Google Assistant Applets is welcomed, but comes with some caveats of its own, such as sometimes being too complex for Google Assistant to fully understand or, even worse, being able to create invocation phrases that are more difficult to remember.
And both services still lack actions. This mean you can only trigger an Applet with your speakers. You can't have another device or service control your Alexa or Google Home speaker, at least not anytime soon. But that is definitely something to look forward to (or hope for).