There's a new 'war' for your home
There's a new “war” for your home, but don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of it. It’s only just “erupted” and the two main competing services aren’t strictly available in SA. Last week Google held its annual developer conference, where it announces its big projects for the year. Called Google I/O (a computing term, and the acronym for input/output), it is the event where the now-defunct Google Glass and other so-called moon-shot (or bold, seemingly impossible) ideas were premiered.
The big announcement this year is Google Home — a voice-controlled, Internet-connected device that lets you make search queries just by talking to it. It will also fulfil a range of other so-called concierge services, such as sending e-mails and making calendar appointments.
Google also announced a new messaging app called Allo. This is brave (or foolish), given the company’s inability to crack social media — anyone ever use Wave or Buzz or Google+?
Voice assistants have been a big trend for a few years, with varying success. Apple’s Siri is arguably the best-known and most mature. Google has its own voice-prompted searching; Microsoft’s assistant is called Cortana; and last year Amazon introduced Alexa. Facebook is testing a service called M.
This is the war that’s erupted. This week’s war, in any case. There have been others, notably for your living room: consoles from Microsoft and Sony were thought to be the next frontier of computing, but weren’t; and recent forays have come from Apple TV, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV.
These small devices effectively allow you to turn your TV — if it’s not a smart TV that can run a number of apps itself — into an extension of the Internet. They have had limited success, especially in SA, where most of the services haven’t been available — until Netflix arrived in January — and they require, like the new war, decent broadband Internet speeds.
Amazon’s Echo has been around for a while and from all reports appears to be very efficient. It’s obviously tied to the e-commerce store and works optimally in countries that have an Amazon presence, notably its US home market.
Google hasn’t given a price of the slickly designed Home unit, but Amazon’s speaker-shaped Echo costs $180 (R2 800) and can already be used to order a car from Uber and pizza from Domino's.
At first glance Google’s offering is likely to be more useful. Google’s vast catalogue of search data means it’s much better, and quicker, at giving results, even predicting and auto-completing the most popular requests. This network effect might finally be the key to making these virtual assistants go mainstream and beyond us long-suffering geeks.
I use Siri to dictate text messages or make calls while driving and its voice-recognition quality has improved over the years. (South Africans should change Siri’s accent to Australian English, which allows the service to identify our voices better.)
The obvious privacy fear about Google Home or Amazon Echo is that these devices are always listening. Most household conversations are filled with inanities such as, “where’s the Cremora” — but it does open a can of word worms, doesn’t it?
Google and Amazon might say they don’t care what you say and aren’t monitoring it; and they only action a request when you say “OK Google”. But imagine if they do care, or do listen in. What happens if your home voice assistant gets hacked and people can listen to your conversations?
And what happens if we shift, as appears to be the case, towards using our voices for passwords? This is already offered by some apps and services, including the Vodacom app on my iPhone. A few recordings of you saying things like, “it’s not inside, it’s on top” might be enough for your identity to be stolen.
Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail