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Smart Home

Google Home's 2018 in review: Owning the smart home

After spending a couple of years putting the pieces in place and catching up to Alexa, 2018 was the year Google unveiled its lofty smart-home ambitions.

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you scroll down on Google's smart display, the Google Home Hub, you'll see a smart home control panel filled with shortcuts for common tasks like turning off your lights or locking your doors. Open up the Google Home app and you'll see similar options and a room-by-room breakdown of all of your compatible smart home gadgets.

In October, I wrote about how these controls help make the smart home more seamless. Instead of juggling a bunch of apps to control gadgets from different companies, you can see everything grouped together in one spot. The experience is the same whether you are on your phone or using the smart display, so you only need to learn one interface. Google can legitimately make managing your smart home simpler as long as you're willing to put one of the search giant's gadgets at the center of your web of connected devices.

Google launched its smart display this year alongside a few third-party alternatives integrated with the company's voice assistant (just called Google Assistant). Google revamped the Google Home app in October. It also exponentially increased the number of smart gadgets that work with Google Assistant over the course of the year.

Google first debuted the Google Home smart speaker and Google Assistant in 2016. At the time, the company talked about Google Home as an entertainment device first and foremost -- it could play music and answer your questions by searching the web. Its smart home capabilities were a footnote.

Google obviously intended for Google Home to capitalize on the success of the similar Amazon Echo and Amazon's assistant Alexa in the burgeoning smart home market, but given that Google Home only launched with four smart-home partners and Alexa already worked with thousands, Google wasn't yet ready to compete on that front and spent 2017 playing catch-up. 2018 was the year the company made its move to capture the smart home.

CES -- moving towards awareness

Amazon's assistant Alexa won CES 2017 without Amazon even having an official presence at the massive tech showcase in Las Vegas. The Amazon Echo was already a breakout hit and seemingly every company wanted to jump on the bandwagon by building Alexa into their own gear or making their gadgets compatible with Alexa. Google had released Google Home a couple of months earlier, and I was looking forward to the competition at the show. It didn't amount to much. The tech industry was enamored with Alexa. Google was an afterthought.

A year later, that changed drastically. Google was everywhere at CES 2018. The search giant didn't actually announce any Google-branded products or notable features, but a handful of smart displays with Google Assistant built in headlined a host of third-party products that would expand the depth and versatility of the Google Home lineup. You could now talk to Google Assistant in devices of many shapes and sizes including smart displays, alarm clockssmoke detectors and more.

Beyond the gadgets, Google seemed determined to catch up to Amazon in industry awareness. Ads for Google's device ecosystem plastered the Las Vegas public transit system. Up and down the Strip, you could find pop-up exhibitions with jumpsuited employees giving away gadgets to long lines of eager attendees. A giant booth with the words "Hey Google" festooned across the top sat in the parking lot outside the main convention center. Inside the booth, Google showed off a bunch of smart-home devices that worked with Google Assistant.

Google's message to the tech industry was clear: Alexa had company in the smart home.

Google I/O: Moving towards versatility

Google's push for awareness looked to be already paying dividends in May. Right before the company's developer conference, Google announced that its Google Assistant worked with 5,000 different devices -- up from 1,500 in January. Google was still playing catch-up, as Alexa worked with around 12,000 devices, but Google Assistant also worked with every major brand, so most connected gadgets you could find in a store were compatible with both.

Once Google I/O got properly underway, the company announced several updates to make its assistant more competent. A feature called "continued conversation" allowed you to keep talking to your smart speaker without needing to repeat the wake words. Another one called Pretty Please offered positive reinforcement for your kids if they used their manners when issuing a command. Routines, a term Google uses to refer to Google Assistant's ability to launch multiple actions across devices from a single, user-determined voice command, became more customizable.

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Google made subtle changes as well to make Google Assistant a more natural smart-home interface. They rolled out native controls for new device types such as blinds, ovens and coffee makers. Without these controls, third-party device makers had to build custom commands for products like smart sprinklers. To control a Rachio Smart Sprinkler, you'd also have to say something like  "Hey Google, ask Rachio to turn on the sprinkler." With native controls, you no longer needed to invoke the custom command by "asking Rachio" so you could just link your Google account to your Rachio account as usual, then say "Hey Google, turn on the sprinkler."

Something called "request sync" also made updates easier. Without it, you'd have to unlink then relink your Philips Hue account every time you added a new smart bulb in order to be able to control the it with your Google Home. Thanks to request sync, if you add a new bulb with your Philips Hue app, Google will get that updated info from Philips automatically.

Google also doubled down on its main advantage over Alexa -- intelligence. At I/O, Google showed that the AI of its digital assistant was on another level with a demo of an experimental feature called Duplex. Basically, Duplex allowed Google Assistant to call a restaurant on your behalf and make a reservation, and it sounded stunningly human.

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Duplex was so realistic that it creeped out a number of people in the tech industry and raised ethical questions about the need to identify itself as a bot. Google eventually confirmed Duplex would identify itself, and the tech has started rolling out as a means to screen calls on the company's new smartphone, the Pixel 3.

While continuing to work on the intelligence of Google Assistant and its ability to control a variety of things, Google also used I/O to catch up to Alexa on another important front: device versatility. Alexa was already built into devices such as lamps, robots, mirrors and more. Google had finally expanded beyond phones and speakers at CES, but I/O showed the company's plan to do much more on this front.

The plan started with those same smart displays debuted at CES. Google made them a featured part of the conference, announced they'd be ready in a couple of months and debuted new tricks such as playing YouTube TV on the screens. Weirdly, though Google announced four displays at CES -- from Lenovo, JBL, LG and Sony -- Sony's was nowhere to be found. It's still missing in action with the other three now on store shelves, though Sony assured me at the time that it was still a work in progress.

The smart displays were designed to mimic and improve upon the Amazon Echo Show. They respond to the same voice commands as smart speakers, and show extra info after you asked certain questions. You see the weekly forecast after you ask about the weather or you can check out pictures of nearby restaurants when you search for a place to eat. You can also watch videos and make video calls with the screen.

They also cleverly set the stage for the debut of Android Things. Android Things is a trimmed-down version of the company's famous mobile operating system meant for simple smart home devices. The software officially launched at I/O, and it's meant as a tool for developers. The smart displays were built with Android Things, so in addition to being an Echo Show competitor, they served as a proof-of-concept to show developers what's possible with Android Things and their own hardware ideas.

Lots of Alexa's device versatility comes from third-party products. Google used I/O and those smart displays to showcase what third-party products could do with Google Assistant.

Made by Google Event -- moving into the smart home

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The Google Home Hub introduced a smart home control panel. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Between I/O and Google's October event, Google brought subsidiary Nest into its smart-home division and under its own leadership. Nest helped popularize the smart home with the Nest Learning Thermostat, and now that team could help boost Google's smart-home efforts. Nest still offers a wide variety of smart-home products under the Nest brand, and the integrations with Google's products would start to become more seamless.

Also, the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View debuted. Both were good products that made better use of the touchscreen than the Echo Show. The Lenovo Display had an elegant design and a crisp screen. JBL's display offered booming sound quality. Both were good at multitasking. They could walk you through a recipe, show you a video, add something to your shopping list, then hop right back to where you left off in that recipe.

Google waited until the October event to add the finishing touches to their vision for the smart displays. That's when the company rolled out its own version -- the Google Home Hub -- as well as the smart-home control panel, and the updated app with a new focus on smart home controls. Though the control panel debuted with the Home Hub, it rolled out to the existing smart displays via an update as well, and Google again boosted its number of compatible devices -- announcing that its assistant now worked with 10,000, doubling the total from May.

The Home Hub also looks cute and comes in four different colors. It can scroll through personal pictures while in ambient mode, and Google Assistant can help curate that slideshow so only the best ones pop up and new ones get added to the mix automatically. Plus, the Home Hub has a great ambient light sensor that automatically adapts both the brightness and warmth of the screen to match the room. As a result, pictures look like they do in a picture frame instead of blaring brightness like a billboard.

Google Assistant might be a little smarter than Alexa, but it's difficult to demonstrate that to prospective customers in a store as both will answer basic questions with equal accuracy. The Home Hub gave Google a smart home control center, it also gave the search giant a bit of eye candy for the holidays with visually obvious features that customers could readily appreciate while shopping.

For better or worse, it also lacks a camera. You can still make video calls, but the recipient won't be able to see you. That put the Home Hub in stark contrast with the Facebook Portal -- a smart display aimed primarily at video calling with a camera that could follow you if you moved around the room during a conversation. Amazon debuted an improved Echo Show with a camera. Even Google's third-party displays from Lenovo and JBL had cameras.

Google Home Hub costs less than the competition, but the company touted the lack of camera as more of a peace-of-mind and privacy feature than a cost-cutting measure. Given Facebook's privacy issues this year, the extra emphasis on privacy was understandable.

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Nevertheless, a hacker claimed to have found a security vulnerability in the Home Hub, which could allow hackers to access the device and change its settings, but Google called the claims inaccurate.

The verdict of the masses

December and January will provide a great proving ground for Google's new emphasis on the smart home. We'll know soon if Google can cut into Amazon's lead in sales during the pivotal holiday season, and if the tech industry puts the two on equal footing at CES.

Even after the October event, Google continued to introduce new smart-home features to boost Google Assistant's repertoire leading up this important stretch. You can now see song lyrics on your smart display when playing music. You can save your favorite recipes to a digital cookbook. You can even reply if someone makes an announcement using Google's broadcast feature.

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This season will be the third time Google and Amazon have faced off over the course of the holidays and CES. Google's not hiding its ambitions to become a central part of your smart home. The only question remaining is if the company has done enough to convince you to open the door.