A few months ago I wrote of my experiences with Google taking over my house, and even the introduction of the Google Home appliance into the central living area (the kitchen).
Last week the march was permanently halted, and rolled back.
OK Google, say goodbye
The Chromecast devices were actually removed a number of months ago as I found the experience or initially selecting an audio device slower than I would have liked. In fact it was faster to get the Chromecast with Spotify to work from an iPad than from an Android phone. I also found it fiddly having a second device present being the actual speaker – it was simply too many cables and pieces for something I wanted to be hidden and neat.
The Chromecast Audio devices were removed and replaced with quality Sonos speakers, and I have not looked back.
Next on the list was the Google Home. Overall the device works well especially as the language and functionality is localised, but it was the latter that also started to frustrate me. The same experience we often find out of Microsoft or Apple of the US being first was the same with the Google Home – it couldn’t do many things that it’s US version could.
In fact it couldn’t do basic things like reminders which was incredibly frustrating, as I could hold down the home button on my Android phone and speak to the same Google Assistant – where reminders would work.
Another key issue was the walled garden Google had built. While it played nice with some vendors, it didn’t with others (read: Microsoft). I do not use the Google ecosystem of apps and services much and as a result was limited in what I could do. I found it annoying that the only way to get my calendar ready by the Google Home was to use a workflow tool that would copy events from my Office 365 calendar to my Google Calendar.
What really got me over the edge was having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” to get its attention. I already don’t like it when people say they “Google” something (I’m a purist who comes from a time when Google didn’t exist but the web did, as did other search engines) – so I certainly didn’t want my daughters saying it all the time.
There was little chance I would wait for a Cortana-powered speaker, especially when Microsoft appeared to be retracting from its consumer device ecosystem (eg. Band, Lumia) other than the Xbox and miscellaneous hardware.
However Microsoft and Amazon did announce a partnership to allow Alexa and Cortana to communicate and work together. That old chestnut of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” comes to mind.
Alexa, tell them why we’re friends now
I chose to test the waters with Amazon given they were first to market and had more hardware options.
My initial test relied on an Amazon Echo Dot plugged into an external speaker, as the built in speaker was not ideal for playing music.
Functionality wise Alexa gave me most of what I wanted out of the Google Home: play music, set reminders, tell me the weather, and other little things. One of the biggest benefits is I don’t have the call the device “Amazon” (although that’s an option, as well as a few other choices)!!
Unfortunately Amazon hasn’t launched in Australia so we have the US language pack running which presents a few challenges around understanding the occasional request but for the most part there are no issues. It’s expected that Amazon will launch their delivery service in Australia before the end of 2017 so the hope amongst fellow Alexa users down under is that a the English (Australia) language will be made available as well as localised services (eg. traffic, weather, etc.)
When I previously wrote about my experience with the Google Home I lamented the lack of integration with Sonos. Thankfully Amazon and Sonos recently launched their integration, and while it doesn’t support Spotify commands yet I can at least ask Alexa to stop playing the track on Spotify which is already playing out of Sonos speaker. Hopefully more functionality will come soon.
A key aspect of the attraction to Alexa was the amount of skills it boasts. While many of these are obscure apps that I won’t use (eg. Game of Thrones quotes, Major League Baseball stats, etc.) there are a number of skills and integrations that called to me:
- Ability to control my wireless light bulbs without the need for a hub/controller or mobile app
- Having my shopping list items and task list synchronised with Todoist (which required us to migrate away from Wunderlist)
- Integration with Plex
- Broad range of applets on IFTTT
Alexa also has a larger range of built-in songs when you ask it to sing a song, including a humorous one about losing connectivity to the cloud and not being able to perform actions.
My current setup now consists of the Echo Dot as well as an Amazon Tap which is truly wireless as it has a built-in battery which allows us to take Alexa outside when we’re playing in the yard with the kids.
They key reason I bet on Amazon is that they have ultimately failed in the consumer device and ecosystem space, and know that they need to partner up in order to survive. Microsoft to a certain extent is in the same boat, but I don’t expect their Cortana-powered device will have a long life whereas Amazon just released an even bigger range of devices.
The only challenge Amazon will have is where a technology company becomes a bully and blocks them from using its service. This happened quite recently with Google ripping the YouTube app from the Amazon Echo Show – which is quite similar to something they’ve done before.
So now the Google Home has gone to live with a friend who already has one and wanted an additional unit for upstairs, and I’m thankful we don’t have to use the term “Google” in our house any more.