Scott Huffman – Google IO 2019

Google Assistant Getting More Mobile App Integration and Control

At the annual Google I/O developer conference, a number of Google Assistant features were demonstrated today on Pixel smartphone. Scott Huffman, vice president of engineering for Google Assistant, and a colleague started off with a demonstration of continued conversation on the smartphone, which Huffman first demonstrated on Google Home at I/O 2018. This was followed by demonstrations of opening apps and executing tasks all by voice. Below are a list of activities that were run through in sequence. The video starts right after the demonstrator says, “Hey Google…”

  • Continued conversation on the Pixel Open apps
  • Open photos
  • Set a timer
  • Ask about the weather
  • Open Twitter to John Legend
  • Order a ride from Lyft
  • Turn on and off the flashlight
  • Take a selfie.

A Focus on the Phone Tells You Where Google Thinks the Growth Is

These demonstrations and others highlighted Google Assistant’s capabilities on Android devices and there was little mention of smart speakers or additional features for voice only experiences. Jochen Emig of ONSEI in Berlin pointed out that, “Today we saw a separation between Assistant and Android which has a lot of new features…It all goes a little bit more toward Android developers compared to last year when we saw all of the new Dialogflow features on general development just for voice and voice-first.” Emig also sees a coming conflict between voice-first Google Actions and Android apps that have integrated Assistant and are offering voice accessed deep links.

“One example we have here is the Nike Running Club. How are we in the future going to work with it if have the deep integration into apps with Google Assistant and we actually have a Google Assistant [Action]. How is Google actually going to make a choice between are we going to run the Assistant [Action] that we have done traditionally or are we going to do the deep linking into the Android app? I didn’t see anything where they mentioned you have hot keys for this or the developer can choose to open the app or to use the Assistant [Action] version of this. I am hoping we are going to get more insights during this conference.”

This is an interesting development in the Google Assistant ecosystem. As Google Assistant matures on Android, there is the gravity pull of millions of Android apps and developers committed to the platform. There is also the fact that Google on its most recent count had only accumulated about 4,200 Actions in the U.S. and presumably a far lower number in other countries. This slow growth threatens to create a perception of tepid Assistant support by developers. However, if a lot of developers begin adding Assistant features to their Android apps, then the value and reach will accelerate quickly.

The focus on the phone tells you where Google thinks the near-term platform growth will come from. There are over 1 billion devices with Google Assistant. Of those, there are very likely fewer than 100 million voice-first devices such as smart speakers. And, there are now 2.5 billion active Android smartphone users. So, Google can see the growth for Assistant in the near-term will be on mobile provided there are useful features that take advantage of it.

A Focus on Productivity and Being Helpful

Google’s theme this year may also be related to this new voice-first angle, “building a more helpful Google for everyone.” Many of the demonstrations were related to enhanced personal productivity and making some tasks easier to execute. Additional demonstrations along these lines included the ability to compose emails completely by voice, search photos by image topic by voice, and add photos to text messages by voice. These are all tasks you can perform today through touch, swipe, and hunt, but they are made faster by a combination of voice and machine learning that is getting better at understanding user intent.

So, Google Assistant isn’t necessarily a conduit to find your media or entertain you as much as help you get things done. It’s not that you cannot use Google Assitant for those tasks or for immersive voice experiences, it is just that there is a current focus on what you might classify as productivity hacks. And, many of these productivity tools used by consumers are already in Android apps. So, integrating Google Assistant more deeply into Android apps is well aligned with the focus on being helpful.

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