Google Assistant — the AI assistant that lives in Android and iOS smartphones, TVs, headphones, tablets, smartwatches, cars, smart displays like the Google Home Hub, and smart speakers like the Google Home Mini — has had a banner year by any measure. As of October, it works with 10,000 dishwashers, ovens, light bulbs, and other smart home gadgets across 1,000 brands, a significant jump from 5,000 devices and 1,500 devices in May and January 2018, respectively. And as Google revealed in a blog post today, it’s available in more places and in more languages than ever before.
Google said it expects Google Assistant to be on 1 billion devices by the end of this month. It also said that the number of active Google Assistant users grew 4 times over the past year, that Google Assistant can perform over a million actions, and that it is conversant in 30 languages and available in 80 countries, up from 8 languages and 14 countries in 2017.
The Mountain View company declined to reveal the number of third-party apps available for Google Assistant, or even to offer a ballpark estimate. But a third-party analysis by Voicebot.ai in January 2018 pegged the number at roughly 1,719 — an increase of 137 percent from October 2017. Among that group are tentpoles like Uber, Domino’s, Food Network, and OpenTable, plus bird sound identifiers, Bible passage narrators, and calorie counters, to name just a few. That’s not to mention smart home apps from GE, Ring, Harmony, August, TP-Link, and brands directly integrated with Google Assistant, like Lifx, Philips Hue, SmartThings, and WeMo.
But Google Assistant still hasn’t gotten the John Legend voice Google announced this summer. A company spokesperson told VentureBeat that the voice’s launch was “delayed,” but declined to say when it might become available.
Still, it’s impressive growth no matter how you slice it. It was only in May, after all, that vice president of Google Assistant engineering Scott Huffman announced Google Assistant had reached 500 million devices, and a little over a year after Huffman said it was on 100 million Android devices.
An eventful year
So what has Google Assistant learned to do in 2018?
Well, it can beam turn-by-turn directions to your phone when you ask “How do I get there?” or say “Let’s go home.” It can broadcast a brief message via other Assistant-enabled devices (like a Google Home speaker or Chromecast) to which recipients can respond. It’s able to stream live video footage from the Nest Hello doorbell on command (“OK Google, who’s at the front door?”) and turn the temperature in Nest thermostat-equipped homes up or down.
You might recall that last year, during CES 2018, Google Assistant became the default assistant for Android Auto, Google’s dashboard-optimized variant of Android that’s in 400 cars from more than 40 brands. Alongside the move came tighter integration with Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Hyundai vehicles, which enabled owners to ask Google Assistant to lock the doors or check the fuel level. Also in tow were drink-ordering and parking spot-reserving tie-ins from Starbucks and SpotHero, respectively.
In March, Google Assistant gained a new API — the media response API — that allows app developers to incorporate things like news briefs, clips from TV shows, and interactive stories. (Early adopters included CNBC and the Daily Show.) Around the same time, Google began generally allowing voice apps to send daily updates and event-triggered, opt-in push notifications to users.
A few months later, Google Assistant’s visual snapshot feature — a contextually sensitive collation of location-based reminders, commute times, flight and restaurant reservations, upcoming bills, order statuses, and other agenda items — launched broadly on iOS and Android smartphones. And in August, Google Assistant learned to speak two languages at once, thanks to LangID, an improved multilingual automatic speech recognition AI system.
More recently, in October, Google allowed Google Assistant app developers to start charging subscriptions and show visualizations (in the form of GIFs). It began providing price estimates and wait times for Uber, Lyft, Grab, Ola, and GO-JEK. In December, Google rolled out a proactive notifications feature that predicts which flights are likely to be cancelled, and it began experimenting with a short-form audio news briefing format, with partners such as CNBC, the Associated Press, South China Morning Post, and Hollywood Reporter.
But despite these and dozens of other enhancements in recent months, Google Assistant still has some catching up to do.
On the third-party apps front, it doesn’t come near its closest rival by market share, Amazon’s Alexa, which boasts over 70,000 apps and services. Alexa supports a greater number of smart devices, too — 28,000 from over 4,500 brands, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services told the Verge this week. Moreover, manufacturers now sell more than 150 products with Alexa built in, and over 100 million Alexa devices have been sold to date.
Alexa has a leg up when it comes to kid-focused features, too.
Amazon sells an $80 version of its Echo Dot speaker — the Echo Dot Kids Edition — which boasts a protective case, comes with a two-year damage warranty, and affords access to ad-free, kid-appropriate stations on iHeartRadio Family. Additionally, Amazon offers a service — FreeTime for Alexa — that lets parents filter explicit songs from streaming services such as Spotify and Amazon music, whitelist services, impose usage limits, and tap a library of child-friendly apps, including Disney Stories, SpongeBob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, and Batman Adventures. The paid tier — FreeTime Unlimited, which starts at $3 per month — steps things up a notch with over 15,000 curated apps, games, videos, and pieces of educational content.
Google Assistant is becoming more kid-friendly, to be fair. In November, Google added the ability to set alarms voiced by characters from popular cartoons, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego Friends, and Hatchimals. Google Assistant’s Read Along feature, meanwhile, plays sound effects and music on Home speakers when reading a kids book. And through Family Link, Google’s holistic parental control dashboard, watchful guardians can block kids from accessing unauthorized apps and using Google Assistant during certain times and days, or set up content filters for music, video, and queries.
But it’s still not quite as robust as Amazon’s offerings.
And Google Assistant is deficient in other areas. It lacks an answer to Amazon’s Alexa Guard, which harnesses the listening power of Echo speakers to alert people when it hears the sound of breaking glass or smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. And it doesn’t have a “whisper mode” — unlike Alexa, Google Assistant won’t whisper back if you speak to it in a hushed tone.
It does excel at answering general knowledge questions, however. In Loup Ventures’ most recent “annual digital assistant IQ test,” which ranks AI systems’ performance when responding to 800 real-world questions, Google Assistant came out on top, with a 100 percent rate of understanding queries, and this time an 87.9 percent correct answer rate. That’s compared to Alexa’s 72.5 percent correct response rate.
That’ll be of little comfort, though, to folks still waiting for Google Assistant to channel its inner Legend.