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Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant try making themselves the talk of CES 2020

Which company came out on top?

Google Booth CES 2020

Google's CES booth included this array of colorful slides that fed into a ball pit.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

At an after-hours party at Amazon's CES exhibit at the Venetian, Shaquille O'Neal and Guy Fieri dished jokes to a boisterous crowd as the two celebrities poured glasses of a spicy, reddish cocktail they had made with the help of Amazon's Alexa.

Meanwhile, at Google's expansive, two-story booth outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, the search giant built an elaborate escape room-style attraction to showcase its competing product: Google Assistant. As part of the experience, attendees called out voice commands while they moved through a market and home kitchen. All the while, a narrator poked fun at guests over a loudspeaker.

In what's become an annual rite, the two biggest names in voice technology use CES, the global tech gathering in Las Vegas, to make the case for their digital helper. Each company wants its assistant to be at the center of what they hope will be a voice-enabled future.

Amazon and Google tried one-upping each other, as they have in the past, by showing off an array of new business partnerships, devices and voice capabilities, in hopes of convincing even more companies and customers to join their ecosystems.

CNET reporters Richard Nieva, who writes about Google, and Ben Fox Rubin, who reports on Amazon, were on the ground in Las Vegas for the week. They debated whether Amazon or Google made a bigger splash at the show.


Nieva: At this point, Google and Amazon have been fighting it out at CES for three years now. 

Rubin: Yep, it's been going on long enough that a lot of what they do at the show has become predictable. "We put Google Assistant in this new doodad." "We teamed up with this new company to add Alexa capabilities to that thingamajig."

Nieva: Google definitely has a formula. And they didn't do much to veer from it this year. They build a big booth with whimsical experiences for guests. They hire an army of people, dressed in all-white, to explain to conference attendees how the Assistant works. They plaster the phrase "Hey Google," the wake words for the service, on the Las Vegas monorail. 

But the company actually scaled back a little this year. The booth was more contained than last year, when they built a theme park ride along the lines of "It's a Small World." Don't get me wrong. The escape room was elaborate, but it wasn't as grand. 

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At Amazon's Alexa booth at the Venetian, the company showed off its new partnership with Lamborghini.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Rubin: In comparison, I'd say Amazon ratcheted up their presence at the show this year, with three separate exhibits to show off Alexa-powered gadgets, automotive partnerships and Ring home security devices. To add a bit of that Vegas pizazz, they brought not one but two lipstick-red Lamborghini sports cars on the show floors to highlight their work putting Alexa controls into those vehicles.

Amazon smart-home exec Daniel Rausch walked me through the Alexa exhibit at the Venetian to show me all the smart-home stuff that uses the voice assistant, including a fridge, board games, a device that spits out individual dog treats and even a bed that plays music. Going forward, he said the company wants to add more features to Alexa to make it more useful, noting that it isn't all about cramming the AI into even more stuff.

Nieva: Google's product announcements also came across as a little smaller than they did last year. At CES 2019, Google introduced an interpreter mode for the Assistant, a feature that lets two people carry on a conversation while speaking different languages. We saw an impressive live demo last year. And it was ready for use: The company launched a pilot program at hotel concierge desks. 

This year, the big product unveiling was a screen reading feature that allows the Assistant to read long-form text, like articles and blog posts, out loud in a natural sounding voice. Also cool, but Google called the announcement a "preview" and, disappointingly, didn't let reporters try it out for themselves.

Now playing: Watch this: Google shows off the power of Assistant
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Rubin: Amazon presented a ton of new Alexa gadgets at the show, though I don't think any of those products enjoyed a breakthrough moment this time around. Two years ago, Kohler showed off an Alexa-powered toilet, and that one got plenty of notice. A new set of wireless earbuds isn't going to have the same impact.

The company also teamed up with ExxonMobil to let customers with Alexa in their cars pay for gas at 11,500 stations nationwide by just asking the assistant while at the pump.

Nieva: Google's biggest announcement wasn't a product feature at all. It was a stat: 500 million people use the Assistant each month. It's the first time Google has released user numbers for the service. A handful of other Google products have at least a billion users each, including Maps, Chrome and Drive. This Assistant is halfway there. It's a legitimately notable milestone.

Rubin: For Amazon, the company revealed that there are now "hundreds of millions" of Alexa-powered gadgets worldwide, more than double the 100 million figure the company announced at the last CES. 

Nieva: Big thing to note here, though, is these figures are murky. Google said last year that the Assistant is on a billion devices. But most of those devices are Android phones, which come with the Assistant pre-installed. Also, what does "hundreds of millions" really mean?

Rubin: I agree. These companies are annoyingly vague about this stuff.

Also on the Amazon side, it wasn't all good news. Ring, a home security company Amazon owns, was under a lot of pressure at the show following a handful of problematic security lapses in recent months. Ring's CEO talked a lot this week about how they're working to improve privacy and security, but it was obvious that they now need to rebuild trust and their new CES product reveals were completely overshadowed.

Nieva: Yep, that's one area where Google got a pass. Don't get me wrong. The company is dealing with a lot of controversies more broadly: multiple antitrust investigations, a workforce brimming with unrest and the whack-a-mole challenge of trying to remove toxic content on YouTube. But in terms of product controversies, Google didn't enter the week under the kind of duress Amazon had with Ring. 

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Amazon's Alexa booth at the Venetian

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Rubin: So, all things considered, which of these companies do you think got the most attention at the show and pulled off what they wanted to do?

Nieva: Last year, I thought Google did the better job. But this year, it just felt like more of the same from the company.

Rubin: For me, even with Ring's ongoing difficulties, Amazon has woven Alexa into the fabric of CES and, in effect, so many devices at the event. That's why I'd say they did a better job showing themselves off this time around and won this year versus Google.

Nieva: I agree. Give it to Amazon this year. 

That said, neither company stole the spotlight at CES 2020. There was other stuff that captured people's imaginations. Everyone was talking about Impossible Pork and Neon, a Samsung-backed company developing AI avatars that look like humans.

Rubin: Here's hoping CES 2021 includes a hyperrealistic AI-powered Impossible Chicken Wing powered by Alexa, or perhaps Google Assistant. Now that would be pretty sweet.