Alexa or Google Assistant? At CES, the battle moves into home robots

Amazon is putting Alexa into everything – the latest products are home robots. But at CES this year, Google made some strides forward in the battle to create the best voice assistant

Google made a splash at the world’s biggest tech show for the second year in a row, but, in truth, it was playing catch-up to Amazon. Alongside headline-worthy features, such as a real-time interpreter mode, its big smart-home play was Google Assistant Connect, a new platform designed to grow the amount of third-party kit running its voice assistant, right down to simple smart buttons and E-Ink screens.

Google isn’t short of high-profile partners either. CES saw the launch of the Assistant-compatible C by GE “Made for Google” smart light bulbs; the splashproof KitchenAid Smart Display, Lenovo’s Smart Clock and in-car chargers from JBL and Anker that double up as Google Assistant devices. Still, if you take Android phones out of the equation, Alexa remains in front.

Aside from the lists of me-too devices entering each ecosystem and oddities such as Royole’s smart speaker with a curved touchscreen display, one of the most intriguing smart-home trends at this year’s CES was interoperability. After years of Google and Amazon aggressively acting to wall off their rival voice platforms, both Samsung and Apple (the latter did not actually exhibit at the show, as usual) made moves that could be seen as acknowledgements that Bixby and Siri may never be quite as universal as once hoped. Let’s call them Cortana pivots.

LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio announced that various models of their new high-end TVs are getting AirPlay 2 in 2019, and all but Samsung’s series will get Apple HomeKit compatibility, too. Samsung is instead getting the iTunes Movies and TV Shows app on its 2019 televisions from the spring, which is big news for both streaming and for the wider smart home.

In streaming, it’s entirely plausible that this app could become Apple’s much-anticipated TV streaming service after Tim Cook teased this week that “new services” are coming from Apple in 2019. In smart home, it’s noteworthy that not only is Apple putting its software on another manufacturer’s device, but it is also allowing Samsung’s voice assistant Bixby to search for content within iTunes. (Though in an on-brand privacy move, Apple has made a deal to try to ensure that Samsung or the other TV makers won’t track what people are watching on iTunes or via AirPlay 2).

Indeed, Apple HomeKit was present at CES, in devices like the Eve Room connected air quality monitor and the updated, affordable TP-Link Kasa smart plug, but Siri is only one part of the Apple Home story, not the focus.

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Meanwhile, Samsung continued to push Bixby on its TVs and upgraded Family Hub smart fridge, but it also announced plans to integrate Google services, including Maps, Gmail, YouTube and Google Play, with Bixby. That will make Bixby much more useful for anyone who chooses to use it, while at the same time making Samsung’s assistant fairly redundant in a world where Google Assistant exists. On that note, Samsung is also bringing Google Assistant compatibility to its TVs for users with an Assistant powered smart speaker or display.

There were of course many, many devices at CES 2019 with Amazon Alexa built-in or else compatible with the voice assistant. These ranged from the practical (Ring’s Door View Cam, Schlage’s hubless Smart Wi-Fi Deadbolt lock, Lenovo’s Smart Tabs) to the odd (a voice-controlled Roland piano, Razer’s colour-changing Chroma accessories) to the really quite ludicrous: see Kohler’s $8,000 Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet. The Amazon approach of putting Alexa in anything and everything continues and, as above, Google is now very much playing the same game.

Temi is working to get Alexa up and running by March


Looking ahead, one trend at an early stage is Alexa’s move into roving home robots. CES has always been a friend to robots as they make top-notch showfloor gimmicks when they’re not being bashed into by a Tesla Model S. This year, they joined the smart-home conversation.

The team behind telepresence robot Temi announced that they’re working to bring Amazon Alexa onboard, hopefully by the time the first units are shipped to customers on March 19. Like other companion robots, such as Samsung’s Bot Care which will have some Bixby voice functionality, this will turn the $1,499 Temi into more of an Echo Show on wheels. “Its smart-home abilities will be expanding rapidly,” says Danny Isserles, CEO at Temi. “Alexa developers will be able to develop skills with a completely new dimension – movement.”

Anki was also at the show with its teeny, rolling Vector device to demo its new Alexa voice integration, which started rolling out in mid-December. “We have already seen that once users have Alexa enabled on their Vector, they use him more often,” says Stuart Collingwood, GM EMEA at Anki. He pointed to the rise in robots with EQ (emotional intelligence) at CES – Groove X’s adorable Lovot, for instance, has made quite an impression – and says that Anki hopes that Vector can provide the utility of a home assistant with the addition of its “charming” personality.

It’s clear that home robots need Alexa more than Alexa needs home robots at this stage, but it could easily become a new battleground for the big voice ecosystems if we see more consumer-facing robots throughout 2019. In fact, Amazon’s Lab126 R&D group is rumoured to be building its own companion robot to launch this year, according to Bloomberg reporting on a secret hardware project codenamed Vesta. The competition better work on its charm.