Posts Tagged ‘Matt Weinberger’

Here’s why I like Google’s speakers better than the Amazon Echo

google home mini The Google Home Mini in a Google-exclusive “coral red” color. Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

  • This holiday season, Google Home and Amazon Echo will be very popular gifts, with both companies releasing new products in the line.
  • Amazon Echo is great for Amazon fans, with a wide range of hardware and some nifty software.
  • But Google Home is better for most people — Google’s AI and ability to answer even weird questions makes all the difference.

This holiday season, the escalating war between Google and Amazon is coming to a store shelf near you.

Amazon will be pushing its revitalized line of Echo smart speakers, powered by the Alexa voice agent. That includes the ever-popular Echo Dot, now $40, a revamped $99 Echo, the $129 Echo Spot alarm clock, and more Alexa-powered gadgetry, besides.

In the other corner is Google, which is hyping up the $50 Google Home Mini, powered by its own Google Assistant. Also on offer: The original $129 Google Home, and, come December, the $400 block-rocking Google Home Max.

There are other options, sure. The Harman Kardon Invoke is powered by the Microsoft Cortana agent, for instance, while Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod will likely be on store shelves before Christmas.

But I’m here to make the case that it’s Google, and the Google Assistant, that reigns supreme. There are all kinds of little reasons I believe this, but there’s really one big one: Google Assistant is much smarter than Alexa, Siri, or pretty much anything else on the market today.

Here’s the skinny.

Amazon Alexa is good…

At the most basic level, Amazon Echo and Google Home can do most of the same things. You can set alarms and timers, play music, check your calendar, add items to your shopping list, get the weather, make phone calls, and control your smart-home gear.

Both products also carry some corporate synergies. With an Amazon Echo, you can shop on Amazon, control a Fire TV streaming box and listen to Amazon Prime Music; with a Google Home, you can control Chromecast streaming devices, access Google Play Music, and shop with Google partners like Target and Walmart. It’s a matter of taste.

amazon echo spot Checking your calendar with the Amazon Echo Spot Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

Amazon Alexa has been around for a little longer, and it shows in a few areas: Alexa supports a slightly wider range of smart home appliances, and sports nifty Echo-to-Echo voice and text messaging features. Plus, Amazon keeps releasing new and innovative Echo devices to showcase what Alexa can do. Google Assistant is adding new features to catch up all the time, Amazon has been relentless about improving Alexa.

Okay, so if the two devices are the same in so many ways, why do I like the Google Home better? Well, to answer that, I’m going to have to take a big step back and explain why I like the Google Assistant better than Amazon Alexa.

…but Google is smarter

Because it taps straight into Google’s base of knowledge, both global and personal, Google Assistant can answer lots of questions, even the really obscure ones. “OK Google, what day was the Battle of Hogwarts?”

Here’s a great example of how that translates into a more usable device. If you ask Amazon Alexa if your dog can eat tomatoes (or carrots, or cereal), it gives you a canned response with all sorts of things dogs shouldn’t eat. Ask Google Home if your dog can eat something, and it usually gives you a yes/no answer, with its source cited.

In general, the Amazon Echo can answer some basic questions (“When do the Yankees play next?”). But, despite Amazon’s efforts  to smarten Alexa up over the years, it tends to stumble over anything more complicated (“How do I get rid of a depleted fire extinguisher?”)

google home The $129 Google Home speaker. Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

If you ask a question Alexa doesn’t know, it nudges you towards “skills” that extend its knowledge and functionality — skills for recipes, for games, and trivia, and relaxation. Not every Alexa skill is great, though, and frankly, I don’t always remember which skill I need when I’m just trying to figure out a question.

And that smarts manifests itself in other ways, too. This goes back to those corporate synergies, but it’s nice to be able to say “OK Google, display my engagement photos on the bedroom TV,” and have it grab the relevant imagery from the Google Photos service, and use the Chromecast to put them up on the correct screen.

So, yeah, it’s a matter of taste, especially as more and more smart speakers come online. But in the battle between Amazon and Google, the artificial smarts really make all the difference.

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Google had to disable a feature on its new $50 smart speaker after the gadget listened in on some users

google home miniThe Google Home Mini in a Google-exclusive “coral red” color.Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

Google rushed out a fix to a glitch in its latest smart speaker last week that caused the device to surreptitiously record the conversations of its early testers without their knowledge or consent.

The bug affected a small number of the Google Home Mini devices that the company handed out to reporters at its press event last week, according to Google. The company rolled out a software update over the weekend to address the issue on those devices and is exploring a long-term fix.

“We learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly,” the company said in a statement, adding, “If you’re still having issues, please feel free to contact Google support.”

Google unveiled the $50 Mini, which goes on sale on October 19, at its event on Wednesday. Soon after, Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii, who was one of the reporters who received a test unit, discovered that his device was turning on by itself, recording his conversations, and uploading them to Google.

Normally, there are two ways to interact with Google’s smart speakers, including the Mini. You can say the words “OK Google,” followed by a command such as “play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” Alternatively, you can press the button located on the top of the devices instead of saying “OK Google.”

But Russakovskii discovered that his Mini was listening in on him even when he hadn’t pressed the device’s button or said, “OK Google.” When he checked his personal activity page on Google, the site that shows users’ interactions with the search giant’s services and the data it collects on users, he found sound files that had been uploaded to Google’s servers from the Mini without his consent.

Google blamed the glitch on a faulty button in some of the units. The buttons on those Minis were detecting touches even when there was no touch to detect. Russakovskii apparently got one of the defective devices.

On October 7th, three days after it handed out the Mini review units, Google rolled out a software update that disables the button. The change affects every Mini it’s handed out, even those that weren’t malfunctioning. Meanwhile, the company says it’s deleted all the data recorded from alleged button pushes on the Mini review units — whether they were actual button pushes or not — from the time it handed out the devices to reviewers until it issued the update.

Ultimately, the problem appears to be a simple error, not a malicious act of spying. And the company is looking for a long-term solution.

But the glitch is one that Google would certainly have liked to have avoided for multiple reasons, as The Verge notes.

The bug could not only help undermine sales of the Mini but hamper Google’s broader effort to turn itself into a top-tier hardware maker. Smart speakers like the Mini rely on customers’ trust; it’s an act of faith for consumers to let Amazon or Google place a microphone in their houses. They generally expect the companies to only record them when they’re aware of it.

Worse, the nature of the glitch is likely to play into consumers’ worst fears about the search giant. Lots of people are already sensitive to the fact that Google is collecting tons of data on its customers. And the company has previously been taken to task for collecting data without consumers’ consent. Back in 2010, Google admitted its Google Maps Street View cars had been sucking up e-mails and passwords from unencrypted WiFi networks as the cars mapped neighborhoods around the country and world.

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Apple is facing a crisis of salesmanship

Apple haters have always made the case that the company’s massive success is as much the product of marketing and salesmanship as it is any kind of technical innovation.

Maybe they’re right. Whatever else Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was, he was the consummate salesman. Maybe the original iPhone could have sold itself back in 2007, but Jobs’ legendary introductory event definitely helped.

But the world has changed. As smartphone innovation seems to have plateaued, the tech giants of the world, notably Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have doubled down on machine learning and artificial intelligence — the trendy technology that’s making for smarter, more personalized apps and devices.

It’s a big, necessary step for the industry. Thanks to smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, home voice assistants like the Amazon Echo, and all our other kinds of gadgetry, we’re generating more data than ever before. The promise of artificial intelligence is a way to sift through the noise and always find exactly what we need, when we need it, on whichever device we’re using.

This means that Tim Cook’s Apple is facing a unique and unprecedented marketing challenge as it heads into Wednesday’s much-anticipated iPhone 7 launch event, where the company is expected to announce a new phone that’s only a minor improvement to the existing iPhone 6S.

iphone 7Apple

With the hardware unexciting at best, that means that the onus will be on Apple to prove that the iPhone is differentiated from Google’s ever-improving Android elsewhere. Namely, it must prove the upcoming iOS 10 operating system has game with the new machine learning trend and it will bring intelligence to the whole iPhone.

How do you sell customers on something they don’t even know they’re using? Perhaps more importantly, how do you do it when the world is convinced that Apple is far behind the rest of the market? With Google nipping at Apple’s heels with each new Android release, these questions are only growing in urgency.

Media blitz

For Apple, the peril is twofold.

First, Wall Street is afraid that we’ve reached peak iPhone sales, and it’s all downhill from here. Second, customers and analysts alike are concerned that after years of same-same iPhone releases and the failure of new products like the Apple Watch and iPad Pro to light the market ablaze, Apple’s ability to innovate has peaked, too.

That’s why Apple’s PR machine spent much of August in overdrive, with top company execs including Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, and Phil Schiller giving interviews to Fast Company, The Washington Post, and Medium’s Backchannel.

In each interview, the content may have varied, but the message was always the same: If you think Apple’s glory days are behind it, think again.

The coded message is: Apple is not behind in new technologies like machine learning.

Tim CookApple CEO Tim CookREUTERS/Stephen Lam

Instead, Apple execs explained to Steven Levy at Backchannel that there is indeed an “Apple brain” on every iPhone and iPad that learns from user behavior. Apple sees it as part of that overall, signature Apple-just-works experience, rather than a total revolution.

“It’s a technique that will ultimately be a very Apple way of doing things as it evolves inside Apple and in the ways we make products.” Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller told Steven Levy at Backchannel.

Again, to decode that message for Apple’s investors and customers: We’re ahead of the curve on machine learning, but even if we weren’t, it would be okay, because we’re still Apple, and we still build the best stuff.

The Siri solution

In a way, Apple is right on track.

Investors and your average consumers don’t care so much about the technology that goes on behind the scenes, so much as they like new, shiny experiences. It’s as true for Apple as it is for Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, or anybody else, really.

But that just underscores the struggle of selling the stuff that machine learning makes possible.

Many of the coolest things it enables, from a technical standpoint  — better app recommendations, facial recognition in photos, speech recognition, fraud prevention and security — are nifty and useful, but also the kind of things you tend to only ever notice when it doesn’t work.

siri in ios 10 wwdc 2016Apple

Which is why you’ve heard so much from Apple about the Siri voice assistant and the new smarts that she’s getting in iOS 10. It’s something Apple can’t hammer on hard enough: This is the proof that we’re not behind in machine learning. This is the thing you can use every day to make your life better.

It remains to be seen if the souped-up Siri will be enough to reverse user behavior, given that surveys have found that 70% of iPhone users use her only sometimes or rarely.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter if she wins the world over or not. Siri, with her new smarts, becomes what’s essentially a mascot for the so-called Apple Brain, more so than she already is.

She’s the most tangible example of what machine learning can do, even if she’s not necessarily the best or most useful.

amazon echoAmazon

The exact same factors are going into Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and the forthcoming Google Assistant, too.

So don’t be surprised if Apple starts talking up Siri as better than all other smart assistants. And don’t be surprised if Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all fire back. Because really, what they’re trying to prove is who’s the most intelligent, artificial or otherwise.

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