With New Products, Google Flexes Muscles To Competitors, Regulators

May 18, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 3:08 pm

The message from Google's developers' conference is clear: The company is prepared to take on competitors as well as regulators.

CEO Sundar Pichai and his team were flexing. Big time.

Through a litany of product announcements at the so-called I/O annual conference in Mountain View, Calif. — messaging apps, a personal virtual assistant and a voice-controlled speaker that connects you with it -- the company basically said:

We can do chatbots better than Facebook. We can be smarter at home than Amazon Echo. Our personal assistant gets trained on Google search, which is more widely used than Microsoft's Bing. We've got you covered on privacy; just like Apple, our new messaging service is getting end-to-end encryption.

Google has been under scrutiny from regulators in Europe who say its position is too dominant and criticize Google for pulling consumers into bundles of its products.

Well, it looks like Google won't stop bundling anytime soon. The personal assistant, which will work through multiple devices, is an effort to deepen the relationship with customers.

"We want users to have an ongoing two-way dialogue with Google," Pichai said about the personal assistant. "We think of this as building each user their own individual Google."

Already 20 percent of queries on Google's mobile app and Android phones are voice queries — people saying "OK Google" to summon an older assistant called Google Now.

The company's been working for years to listen better — get what you say when you're in a noisy place, speaking slang like a human and not a robot, working to complete tasks. The assistant is being integrated into a new chatbot app Allo that helps you make dinner reservations or buy movie tickets.

Google is also releasing a new device called Google Home to help you manage your domestic life. The company wants Home — which looks kind of like a white plastic salt shaker — to have a place at your dinner table and be the all-knowing, helpful extended family you never had.

"It draws on 17 years of innovation in organizing the world's information to answer questions which are difficult for other assistants to handle," said Vice President Mario Queiroz.

Emphasis on other. Google leaders acknowledge: Amazon did it first, with the popular Echo. But they contend their device is smarter — and it can operate in a network — taking commands to shut off the lights in one bedroom while playing Spotify in another.

Google did not announce a release date.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE: The world's tech giants are working on the next step in search, a virtual personal assistant that gets better the more you use it. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports Google laid out its plans at its mega conference yesterday.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Onstage at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Silicon Valley, the DJ and live drummer fade out...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAHANI: ...And Google CEO Sundar Pichai steps up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNDAR PICHAI: We can do things which we never thought we could do before.

SHAHANI: Hard to imagine what that means for the company that made cars self-driving. Pichai gives some examples that sound simple, but aren't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PICHAI: If you're in Google Photos today and you search for hugs, we actually pull all the pictures of people hugging in your personal collection.

SHAHANI: Pichai was unveiling a new product Google calls Assistant. A key detail about how it works - you don't have to type. Google has been training its algorithms to hear you better and better, even if you're in a noisy room, even if you use slang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PICHAI: We want to be there for our users, asking them - hi, how can help?

SHAHANI: Many companies - Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon - they're all racing to create a really good assistant. Google's competitive advantage? It owns all the knowledge in Google Search, and it owns Android, the most popular smartphone operating system on earth.

Pichai gives another example. Say you're in downtown Chicago standing in front of some big, mirror sculpture. Ask your smartphone - Google, who designed this? You don't have to say what this means or where you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PICHAI: We understand your context. And we answer that the designer is Anish Kapoor.

SHAHANI: Or say you want to ask Google a familiar question. What's playing at the movie theater?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PICHAI: Today, if you have that question, we do return movie results. But we want to go a step further. We want to understand your context and maybe suggest three relevant movies which you would like nearby.

SHAHANI: And for further context, a word he uses a lot, say you want to bring your kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PICHAI: And then if that's the case, Google should refine the answer and suggest family-friendly options.

SHAHANI: In a two-hour keynote, Pichai and his team offered a barrage of new products and services that rely on Google Assistant. If a friend sends a selfie, the new messaging service called Allo can suggest responses that sound like you, in text or emoji. A new device called Home - yep, just home, would have a place in the dining table, be the helpful extended family you never had, as described in this commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, Google. Play the Morning playlist.

SHAHANI: What's fascinating about the assistant is that it is a form of artificial intelligence. The machine is learning through practice, practice, practice. And that creates a new argument for why Google should get users on it in as many ways as possible. The more dominant it is, the better it works.

THOMAS VINJE: I generally see the argument. And that's something that should be considered further.

SHAHANI: Thomas Vinje is a leading lawyer in Europe's challenge to Google for operating as a monopoly.

VINJE: I have a very strong philosophical disposition in favor of competition and inclined not to believe that monopolies often serve the public interest. But (laughter) one should be open to any possibility.

SHAHANI: Vinje says it'll be interesting to see if and how Google uses the dominant position it already has - an old-school search, an Android - to get us using Google Assistant. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.