Rrrrrring, rrrrrrring! Hi, it’s the future calling. Got a minute?
That’s the message Amazon is sending to the world this week with the launch of its new Echo Show, a $230 voice assistant that comes with a touchscreen and the ability to make and receive video calls. Well, sort of.
Yes, the Echo Show lets you talk and message with other people — but with one major caveat: You can communicate only with people who are also using a compatible Echo device or the Amazon Alexa app. In other words, it’s Yet Another Proprietary Messaging Service. Like so many other services in that position, it’s useful only if the people you want to chat with are also committed to the platform.
Don’t get me wrong: Having calling capabilities on a smart speaker is certainly a neat idea — and limitations or not, there could obviously be some valid uses for that in both the home and the business realms. But Amazon’s dipping its toes into an area where a certain other company has the potential to do so much more.
Earlier this year, we heard rumors that both Amazon and Google were looking at adding calling capabilities to their respective smart speaker devices. For now, at least, this appears to be Amazon’s implementation — which raises the question of what Google might still have hiding up its sleeve.
Despite a late start into the standalone personal assistant market, Google’s been pushing hard to make its Google Home speaker a hit. And with the company’s I/O developers’ conference just over a week away — a seeming coincidence that makes me raise an inquisitive eyebrow at Amazon’s choice of timing with this Echo Show announcement — the Google crew has a major opportunity to outdo Amazon’s effort and position its product as the smart speaker to buy.
How? It’s simple: Google has essentially run its own virtual phone service for years — first with Google Voice and now with the expanded Project Fi wireless service. Google already has the ability to issue new phone numbers and connect existing Voice and Fi numbers to supplementary devices and services. It has a robust setup for video conferencing calls as well, thanks to Duo, Hangouts, and the zillion other Google messaging products that are lounging around Google’s hallways.
See where this is going?
Google could make Amazon’s effort look like child’s play
If the rumors are true and Google is, in fact, working on a way to turn its Home device into a speakerphone and/or videophone, Google could do it with a reach that’d make Amazon’s effort look like child’s play. An extra-connected Home speaker could let you make and take actual calls with a real phone number — theoretically your own number or a new one that you select specifically for your Home device — and involving anyone else with a functioning phone number. If video were involved, the calls could connect to one of Google’s existing platforms and thus have less of an out-of-the-way requirement for participation. A Google Home speaker could effectively become an extension of your Google account and Android phone, with a massive array of possibilities for how it could work.
For personal users, such a setup could serve as a convenient way to supplement a smartphone and have a modern “landline”-style device in the house, without any ongoing fees. For business users, it could be a versatile and powerful way to conduct conference calls and stay in touch with associates. Think about Google’s recent Hangouts enterprise push and how easily that might fit in with a business-targeted take on this concept (just don’t let it be called Google Home For Business — please).
Right now, no one knows for sure what Google is or isn’t planning to unveil with its Home product in the coming days, weeks, or months. What we do know, however, is that Home and the broader notion of bringing an intelligent and consistent experience across all of our connected devices have been major focuses for the company as of late — and that getting one step ahead of Amazon in the fledgling smart speaker space has been an obvious goal for Google ever since the Echo started to show promise.
We also know that Google recently added the ability for Home to detect and support multiple users via voice identification — a feature that one could imagine having plenty of practical value if account-connected calling were added into the mix.
We know that after years of neglect, Google suddenly relaunched Google Voice earlier this year for reasons that aren’t yet entirely clear.
We know that Google is trying to find a way to make its visual-oriented ad business fit into the audio-centric Home domain — a challenge the addition of a touchscreen could conceivably solve.
And generally speaking, we know that the company has big ambitions for its still-young hardware division.
Will all of this add up to something significant? Time will tell. With the launch of the Echo Show, though, Amazon has absolutely raised the stakes — and there’s little question Google is taking notice.
With I/O around the corner and a hardware-specific event likely to follow later in the fall, things on this front could sure get interesting fast.