The Echo, Amazon’s speaker that doubles as a virtual assistant, finally received some competition. The Google Home was unveiled at the company’s I/O developers conference today, and the product is basically the same as Echo: A speaker that constantly listens for a wake word (“Alexa” for Echo, “Hey Google” for Home) and responds to your queries. These devices are the physical manifestation of these companies’ current artificial intelligence ambitions, and they are seen by many critics as the next hot computing device.
The last hot computing device was the smartphone, and news was also made on that front today. Microsoft sold the feature-phone division of Nokia for $350 million. It’s the latest action the company has taken to divest itself from Finnish Nokia, the handset division of which Microsoft paid $7.2 billion for in 2014.
These events are disparate but related. Microsoft bought Nokia because it trailed Google and Apple in the smartphone race. The hope was to pair Nokia’s venerable devices with the Windows Phone operating systems to make a viable third contender in consumers’ pockets. Instead, the plot failed, and Microsoft has been shedding Nokia assets, including employees, ever since.
Now, with Google’s announcement, Microsoft finds itself trailing its largest competitors yet again in the devices realm. Home, like Amazon’s Echo, is a smart speaker meant to be the control center for all Internet-connected devices in the home. The device will sync with Google’s machine-learning virtual assistant, conveniently called the Google assistant.
“Home is where lots of daily tasks just need to get done,” Google’s vice president of product management, Mario Queiroz, said at the conference. “Access to the Google assistant makes this a lot easier. It’s like having a voice-activated remote control to the real world whenever you need it.”
Confusion between real homes and assistants and Google Homes and assistants notwithstanding, the products are logical next steps in what promises to be a computing landscape shaped by big-data-enabled artificial intelligence. All connected devices — smartphones, thermostats, cars — will know our schedules and preferences, and products like Home and Echo could be central hubs for those networks.
Amazon has one. Google has one. Apple is expected to have one. So where does Microsoft fit into this discussion?
Selling the Nokia feature phones, once seen as Windows’ entryway to developing countries, further solidifies Microsoft’s disconnect from devices. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable, then, to think that Microsoft would sit out the smart-speaker contest altogether, opting instead to incorporate its own cloud services and machine learning applications with devices made by other companies.
But there’s one glaring problem if Microsoft takes this approach: These smart speakers appear to be the signature AI devices of the time. Thus, Microsoft’s largest AI and cloud-computing competitors, Google and Amazon, are the first to the smart-speaker market. If this piece of hardware is the gateway to mass-adoption AI, then Microsoft’s competitors have a leg up.
It remains to be seen how Microsoft responds, if at all, to Google’s and Amazon’s products. So, if there are any Finnish smart-speaker makers out there, be ready: Microsoft might come knocking on your door.