This week, Google unveiled that Assistant is coming to four new touchscreen devices from LG, Sony, JBL, and Lenovo. With voice commands and a screen, the new devices will be able to make video calls, and serve up things like YouTube videos, directions, cooking help, or your favorite photos. The devices, which made their debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, represent Google’s first attempt to offer smart speakers with screens to compete against Amazon’s Echo Show and Echo Spot. Both Amazon devices were made available for purchase last year.
In their haste to get ahead of tech giants expected to release their own smart speakers this year like Samsung, Apple, and Facebook, Google and Amazon have made a rush of product debuts, internationalization, and expansion into new verticals. Both companies, for example, have released more than half a dozen new products since late September that feature their AI assistant at the heart of the experience. Both companies assert that they want their assistant everywhere, and that today’s battleground falls into three major categories: The home, the car, and the workplace.
At CES this year, we heard much about Google’s AI assistant efforts to enter the home with LG and GE Appliances, and enter the car with Android Auto integration. Little to no announcements were made by either company about the workplace, which is no surprise since CES is a consumer trade shows, but touchscreens will give Google Assistant a new form factor to compete with Alexa for enterprise customers.
The ability to control smart devices in the office or bring up calendar information are a selling point for Echo smart speakers in places like meeting rooms. An AI assistant combined with a visual user interface will, however, be far more useful in a business environment than current voice-only applications.
As Google VP Scott Huffman told VentureBeat in an interview, the new line of devices will open up a variety of use cases for Google Assistant.
Consider the pitch heard from Amazon last November when it debuted Alexa for Business at the AWS re:Invent conference, also held in Las Vegas. Echos or Echo Dots can be used for things like control of smart devices in meeting rooms or start a video chat with Zoom, Cisco, or Polycon, but also do things like bring up visuals of quarterly reports or work with Alexa skills made either for internal use at a company or third-party SAAS providers.
Given the number of products Google sells to enterprise customers today like G Suite, and the existing competition between Google and Amazon in verticals like the home, car, and hotel room, it’s clear a larger play will be made by Google Assistant for the workplace too.
Aside from smart speaker market leaders Google and Amazon, Microsoft has been in the workplace for years now, and brought Cortana to Windows 10 devices in 2015. Today more than 600 million PCs already have Cortana inside. Separately, Microsoft is working on enterprise voice app skills to speak with through the Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker, a Cortana team member told VentureBeat.
Cortana has some exclusive LinkedIn and Office 365 features, and can do things like add events to your calendar that include coworkers, but Alexa is beginning to challenge Cortana’s PC monopoly with Alexa integration coming to PCs from Lenovo, Acer, Asus, and HP, also announced at CES.
Cisco joined the competition to be a workplace assistant last fall, and wants its Spark Assistant to grow to offer business performance metrics with voice commands during meetings. Over time, Cisco wants its Spark Assistant and third-party meeting bots to take meeting notes, anticipate a worker’s needs, and play a role in interpersonal relationships. Cisco may not be a name you hear mentioned in discussions of AI assistants in other environments, but with hundreds of thousands of existing meeting endpoints, Cisco should be taken seriously.
Touchscreen devices with visual third-party voice apps could be one way Google and Amazon carry over the popularity of their voice interface from the home to the workplace. Both are trying to draw a distinction between the way these devices perform on say, an Android or Fire tablet with Google Assistant or Alexa inside, and via a Chromecast or Fire stick. Both also seem willing to create unique visual interfaces for smart speakers on a screen, and it’s easy to understand why.
A year or two from now if these devices do more in the workplace than video chat, if they grow to become a conversational interface for things like insightful CRM data from Salesforce, sentiment analysis from video chats with clients, or draw from growing list of cloud AI services, smart speakers with a screen could be a great value proposition for enterprise customers.
After a question is answered by Google Assistant on a smartphone, suggestion tips are shown in the hopes of anticipating follow-up questions. Suggested tips will be part of the experience on these new Google Assistant devices, too. Imagine this feature trained with employer questions to improve business performance.
These kinds of features paired with visual skills from third-party developers could becomr part of the new work station, alerting sales associates when their numbers dip, or, as Cortana does today, automatically generating to-do-list items based on tasks assigned to you in emails.
Maybe Satya Nadella was right when he said in 2016 that conversational computing would become a central part of what developers do and change the definition of computing for everyone. Tech and hardware makers sure seem to believe that is the case.
As the fight to become the go-to workplace assistant begins, it’s hard to imagine Google won’t make a major push for companies to adopt devices with its assistant in the same way Amazon did with Alexa for Business. That push will likely lean hard on the importance of the kind of visual and interactive experience first glimpsed this week at CES.