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At CES 2020, Google doubles down on getting its software all around you

The company is focused on an always-on, always-connected future.

"Hey Google" signage at CES 2020

A sign of the times at CES 2020.

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

Google is everywhere at CES 2020. With the world's largest consumer electronics showcase under way here in Las Vegas, the search giant has dispatched an army of people clad in white uniforms to spread the gospel about the Google Assistant, the company's digital concierge software. The company built a massive fun house with slides and a ball pit. The words "Hey Google," the wake phrase for the software, are plastered all over buildings and the monorail in Las Vegas, the tech show's host city. 

It's a classic corporate marketing blitz, but it's also an apt metaphor for Google's grand ambition: to get its software all around you -- to fill up every inch of your life, from your commute to work to your Saturday morning vacuuming the house. (That means getting Google's tech into the home with its smart speakers, as well as the vacuum itself.)

To go with the publicity bonanza -- which has become a tradition at CES for the past two years -- Google made several announcements Tuesday aimed at doubling down on the company's vision of "ambient computing." That's Google's buzz phrase for an always-on, always-connected future where you're not only using the company's services when you turn to its search engine to find a movie's runtime, but also when you want to microwave some popcorn to go with the film. 

The centerpiece of that master plan is the Assistant. To show the company's progress, Google for the first time revealed user numbers for the service: 500 million people a month. Scott Huffman, vice president of engineering for the Assistant, said the product still has a long way to go, but the stat is meaningful. "It means that, in this space of having a human conversation [with AI software], we're onto something," he said in an interview. "We've tapped into something that is getting good enough that people are choosing to use it over the other ways to do things."

Ambient computing is crucial for Google. The company's iconic search engine is so ubiquitous that for many people, it is the internet. But as people increasingly search in other places -- products on Amazon's homepage or restaurants on Yelp -- Google's perch as the world's go-to information provider could be under siege. The biggest threat? Amazon's Alexa, which has become a household name in voice search, a market that should have been Google's birthright. 

It gets worse for Google: When it comes to smart speakers -- the gateway to the smart home for many consumers -- Amazon is the leader. While Google had slowly been catching up earlier, its growth bombed in 2019. Google's share dropped from about 30% to 12%, while Amazon has grown from about 32% to 37%, according to Canalys. The big difference was massive gains by the Chinese companies Alibaba and Baidu, which both overtook Google this year. 

The battle for the smart home

To try to make up for those losses, Google aims to make its case for the smart home. On Tuesday, the company announced a slew of new features

One new feature lets people schedule certain tasks. For example, if you have an internet-connected washer or dryer, you'll be able to schedule a load of laundry. If you have a smart coffee maker, you can time it to brew a pot at 6 a.m. Another feature lets you upload contacts from your phone, from grandma to the vet, that you're comfortable letting anyone in the house access to make a call. Usually Google only lets people call their contacts from a smart display if the Assistant recognizes the caller's voice. That changes with the shared contacts feature. 

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Google lets you upload contacts for the whole household to use.

Google

Google also says it wants people to use their smart displays like a digital chalkboard. It unveiled a simple feature that lets people leave notes on the screen for others in the house to see. The feature is like a less formal version of Timed Reminders, a tool the company announced in August that lets you send scheduled messages to family and friends.

The company has also revamped its Home app to make it easier to link accounts for third-party smart home devices. So now if you set up a device using the manufacturer's app, you'll get a push notification from the Google Home app that lets you automatically input your information. 

In addition, Google is adding the ability to control more than 20 different types of devices through the Assistant. That includes things like an August Smart Lock, Telus Wi-Fi router or Meross smart garage door opener. The company is also expanding its partnerships with TV makers. It's bringing the Assistant to Samsung's new voice-enabled smart TVs later this year. Beyond that, Google is working with the Chinese companies Hisense and TCL to build more far-field microphones into their TVs, so they can work like other Google Assistant smart speakers.  

The search giant is also betting on its engineering and machine learning chops to trying to make the Assistant smarter than Alexa and other rivals. On Tuesday, Google announced an update that lets the service read long form text out loud, including articles, blog posts and short stories. The company says the technology is different from other screen readers because its speech software allows the audio to sound more natural and human, making it easier to understand over a long period of time. 

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You can leave note for family members on Google smart displays.

Google

This isn't the first time Google has used CES to show off the Assistant's artificial intelligence. Last year at the show, the company announced a new interpreter mode that could translate conversations in real time, a feature that leans into Google's formidable machine learning and engineering chops. At the time, the feature was only available on smart displays through a pilot program at concierge desks at hotels. Earlier this month, Google brought the feature to smartphones. On Tuesday, Google said it's expanding the smart display pilot to include airports and work with nongovernmental organizations. New partners include John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization based in Portland, Oregon. 

Half a billion people 

The new features are buzzy, but Google's biggest announcement Tuesday was the monthly user figure. It illustrates how pervasive the Assistant has become. Google said it recorded the stat by tracking how many people gave the Assistant at least one command a month. The stat, 500 million people, amounts to about half the number of users as some other Google products, including Maps, Drive and Chrome. Google also said the Assistant is available in 90 languages in 30 countries.

Last year at CES, Google announced that the Assistant is on 1 billion devices, though that milestone doesn't tell the whole story because the vast majority of those devices are Android phones, which come with the software preinstalled. The Android advantage is likely to help its monthly user figure, too -- the more available the software is, the more people have a chance to use it. So it helps that Android is the most dominant mobile operating system on the planet: It accounts for almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped globally. 

But as the Assistant continues to grow in popularity, Google has to reckon with past sins. Some people just don't trust the company, which has a reputation for sucking up personal data and using it to help target ads to users. 

The Assistant has faced its share of blowback for privacy fumbles. Last year, Google confirmed that third-party workers who analyze language data from the Assistant leaked private Dutch conversations. Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS said more than 1,000 files had been leaked, including recordings from instances where users accidentally triggered Google's software. After the incident, Google paused all of its language review operations. 

To tamp down those privacy concerns, Google on Tuesday announced new voice controls. One new feature lets people quickly delete any record of a command by saying, "Hey Google, that wasn't for you." The request is helpful if, for example, you start to give a command by using the trigger words "Hey Google," but then someone else interrupts you or you start a separate conversation. If you're nervous about what the microphone picked up, the "that wasn't for you command" is like a verbal undo button.

You can also ask "Hey Google, are you saving my audio data?" to find out more about Google's data collection practices. If you're using the Assistant on a phone or smart display, the command pulls up an FAQ on the company's voice recording policies. 

But even as Google tries to address the privacy criticism, the situation is a seemingly endless whack-a-mole. Last week, the company again had to fend off fears that people's devices are spying on them. A user on Reddit said he could see scenes from other people's homes when he connected his Google Nest Hub to a camera made by Xiaomi, a Chinese gadget maker. In response, Google cut off access to the Nest Hub from Xiaomi devices. 

That's the big challenge Google faces as it tries to embed its products in every element of your life. Ambient computing is a profound vision, but computing can always be abused. 

Huffman said Google tries to be transparent about how people's information is used, as well as more conservative with privacy policies. For example, he said, language reviews are now turned off by default. Because devices like smart speakers and displays are in shared spaces like living rooms, security issues are more intense than with phones or personal computers. 

"With ambient computing," Huffman said, "I think the stakes are higher."

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