Powered by Google search, with access to all the magic that makes Google Now (a.k.a. cards) so uncannily useful, the Google Home device announced at the company's recent IO conference might seem set to run roughshod over the Echo, Amazon's earlier entry into the in-home, voice-activated assistant market.
But there's one dumb mistake that could set Google Home up for failure. The company has decided not to give its new device a personal name.
If you've never lived with a voice-activated assistant, you may not know that they usually come with a "wake word" -- a specific vocal sound that alerts the device to listen for a coming command. For Apple, that wake word is "Siri." For the Amazon Echo, it's "Alexa." For Google, the planned wake term is "OK Google," the same as on Android devices. That might seem like a perfectly fine decision, but it isn't.
If you have an Echo, you may already know why not. My husband and I have lived with one for about a year now and for me at least, there have been a few surprises. The first was how quickly it integrated itself into our daily lives. "Alexa, what's the weather?" we're now accustomed to calling out before we get dressed in the morning." Or, "Alexa, how late is the Post Office open?"
The second surprise it that we never refer to the device as "the Amazon Echo" or "it." We call her by her name -- Alexa -- and we think of her as "she." This despite the fact that he's a computer tech and I'm a technology writer, and we both have a perfectly good understanding that the Echo is powered by algorithms and not a personal desire to please us. When you have something sitting in your house and talking to you every day in a pleasant female voice, it's hard not to anthropomorphize. Indeed, anthropomorphism is kind of the point, one that Amazon has cleverly reinforced through slight variations in her answers to commands and various other tricks. If you tell her she's useless, she'll apologize and promise to try and do better. If you wish her goodnight, she'll answer with a goodnight of her own, and may also tell you to sleep tight.
All of this probably seemed silly to the brilliant engineering minds at Google who have apparently opted to skip the pretense and have their device behave just like the software it is.
In the Medium post "Siri, Alexa, Viv, Google: Why Google needs to give a name (and personality) to Google Home," PayFinders founder Brian Roemmele argues forcefully that users will anthropomorphize the Google Home whether the company wants them to or not. And it should want them to because, at least according to one theory, humans anthropomorphize inanimate objects as a way of forming attachments to them. (This human tendency is beautifully portrayed in the film "Castaway" when Tom Hanks' character paints a face on a volleyball, names it Wilson, and starts carrying on one-sided conversations with it.)
By making it crystal clear that the Google Home is nothing more than a device, Google has removed all the fun and whimsy from its new product. But fun and whimsy is exactly what makes the Echo so appealing to use, and so easy to live with. The Google Home may well have better engineering than the Echo does. But if Google doesn't find a way to make its product seem more human, it could still lose the battle for a spot in people's homes.