Right now, the Amazon Echo has a stranglehold on the voice assistant market. Although Amazon won't release numbers on its sales, estimates indicate that Echo is quickly approaching 10 million units sold. For Google Home ($99 at Walmart) -- just released in November 2016, some two years after the Echo -- Amazon's dominance seems insurmountable.
A recent VoiceLabs survey, however, indicates the Echo's lead might not be quite so definitive as it seems. Plus, Google has a couple important tricks up its sleeve. Here's how the Google Home could beat the Amazon Echo in 2017.
Leverage strong consumer awareness
VoiceLabs asked people who owned neither a Home nor an Echo which they preferred: The respondents were split about 50-50. While VoiceLabs didn't ask to what degree they preferred each device, the split indicates Amazon's two-year head start isn't necessarily translating into higher awareness or preference in the overall population.
Google's competitive presence despite its newcomer status is likely due to the brand's ubiquity. While Amazon has 244 million active users (people who have made purchases in the past 12 months) in around 15 countries, Google boasts over 1.4 billion Android phone users, 1 billion Gmail users, and likely as many or more Google search users all over the world. Although those numbers certainly overlap to an extent, the fact remains that the Mountain View tech giant is a fixture in more people's lives, and its services seem to keep them coming back for more.
Conversely, the 50-50 split reflects Amazon's inability to establish its particular device, the Echo, as uniquely compelling. Before Echo fans grab their pitchforks, I'm not saying the Echo hasn't demonstrated the value of voice-controlled smart speakers to a wider consumer base -- it has, and with panache. But the nonuser population doesn't seem to see the Echo's unique value over and above the Home's -- which is surprising, considering the Echo's two-year, unchallenged reign.
But whatever the reason, as many consumers seem interested in Google's Home as in Amazon's Echo. Sure, Google probably won't make up the difference in total units sold for a few years, but here's how it might bring in more unit sales than Amazon in 2017.
Release a Dot competitor
Even if 50 percent of consumers prefer the Home to the Echo, that doesn't mean Google will get 50 percent of the unit sales. The biggest obstacle to buying anything, after all, is price. The only way to get a Google Home is to dish out $130, but if you want an Echo, you can just pay $50 for an Echo Dot. (The Home is only on sale in the US as yet, while Echo devices are sold in the US and UK, but not Australia.)
Of course, each Echo Dot represents only $50 of gross revenue, versus $130 for Google Home. In this incipient market, units sold matters more than money made. According to the VoiceLabs survey, only 11 percent of voice assistant users (Echo or Home) are likely to purchase another device from the opposite company. So if the Dot offers an easy entry point to the market that Home can't match, it could allow Amazon to claim territory more quickly -- hooking people early, and making them less likely to buy a Google Home.
Google needs to offer more pricing options, ideally a sub-$75 Dot competitor, before it can win the 2017 market.
(It's worth noting that, as the smart home industry matures, voice-centric devices such as the Echo and Home will probably become less vital. Google and Amazon are likely more concerned with getting Google Assistant and Alexa into homes than the Home and Echo -- whether those voice assistants live on appliances, lamps or TVs. But for now, both companies are pressing their voice-centric devices aggressively -- and anchoring this new voice assistant technology to a discrete product makes it more recognizable to regular people.),
Leverage entertainment prowess
The Google Home might be in a worse position in regard to price, but it certainly has an edge on the Echo when it comes to entertainment: The Home integrates with Google's TV streaming Chromecast ($15 at eBay) system, whereas Echo doesn't work directly with the Amazon Fire TV. (Alexa voice commands only work via the Fire TV remote, or using skills such as IFTTT or Kodi.)
Google's integration is an important distinction for its voice platform, but it remains too half-baked to inspire most people. Sure, you can pull up particular Netflix shows, but browsing YouTube is impossible, and you can't control just any old TV with the Home by itself.
But that's still more than Echo can do.
Short-term, Google needs to hone its Chromecast integration -- sharpening the YouTube browsing experience, and perhaps integrating with the as yet unclaimed(a Chromecast competitor, but one that represents a significant chunk of the streaming device market).
Long-term, Google needs to create more inroads with major TV manufacturers. Voice-controlled streaming will excite people when all you need is a voice assistant and a TV. For now, you have to rely on elaborate setups using additional bridging and streaming devices. As more TVs come out with Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV built-in, the potential for voice control will become more and more viable.
While Fire TV is now being built into TVs from smaller developers, and LG has announced Echo partnerships (notably with its new suite of appliances), Amazon has yet to demonstrate a deep desire to integrate Alexa with TVs in a way that's seamless with her presence in an Echo device.
Google Home, meanwhile, already boasts integrations with Vizio and Sony TVs. By aggressively pursuing partnerships with other major TV manufacturers, Google could potentially beat Amazon to voice-controlled TV streaming (assume Samsung sticks with its own proprietary voice assistant, purportedly called Bixby).
Google is already leading the way toward smart TV voice control, but if the company wants to claim territory in the smart home, it needs to leverage that distinction as forcefully as possible.
Connect with Google's 'personal assistant' services
As noted above, Google already occupies space in the lives of many non-Home-users. While Echo has a built-in synergy with Amazon Prime and online purchasing -- which it has leveraged well already -- Google should have a similar natural synergy with assistance skills such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs and Google Calendar.
Google Home could have the corner on the actual assistance offered by voice assistants, offering a fully integrated experience to listen and respond to emails, send driving routes to your phone, accept email invites for events and check your calendar. That would be a major distinction in a market characterized by breadth of skills over depth, and volume over polish.
Closing the gap
Google Home trails far behind Amazon Echo when it comes to devices already in homes, but it doesn't have to stay that way. The path to dominance in 2017 isn't as fraught as many people think.
Of course, Amazon won't take Google's fight lying down.