The last few decades have been filled with head-to-head rivalries among technology firms.
The 1980s had VHS versus Betamax. The Nineties gave us Cellnet and Vodafone. The Noughties were dominated by Mac OS or Windows, while the 2010s were all about iOS or Android.
At the moment, there’s another fierce battle to win the hearts and minds of technology-savvy consumers taking place, between ecommerce retailer Amazon and search engine Google.
Both have expanded their empires into some unexpected markets, including on-demand video streaming services and smart speakers.
And the latter is proving to be a particularly ferocious contest, since smart speakers are likely to act as gatekeepers to the burgeoning Internet of Things.
Caught in a web
If you’re not already familiar with the Internet of Things, we recently explained how it’s likely to dominate our lives in the years ahead.
Billions of devices will autonomously send and receive data over wireless internet networks, many suitable for voice control via smart speakers powered by Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
Until recently, Amazon and Google were negotiating exclusivity contracts with hardware manufacturers, trying to give their products USPs while undermining their rivals.
That rivalry has recently been set aside, following an agreement that consumers would benefit from a single communications standard for all smart speakers and virtual assistants.
However, that’s unlikely to bear fruit until next year. Here in 2020, there are many devices which will work with either Amazon Alexa or Google Home, but not both.
In the meantime, differences between these platforms extend further than incompatibility with certain third-party hardware.
These are the main differences between Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant:
Accent Alexa can be set to speak in different accents or languages, but Assistant has two unique advantages – the option of a male voice, and multilingual input.
The latter is particularly useful for overseas nationals living in the UK, who might want to dip into their native tongue periodically. Assistant can even act as a real-time interpreter.
Input commands Alexa can understand many inputs, from “open the blinds” and “buy coffee” to “what fruits are in season” and “tell me a Star Trek joke.”
There’s a whisper mode for late-night use, which is good at understanding words spoken without their usual glottal and plosive sounds. However, search results come from Bing.
Google Assistant can handle multiple instructions at once – “what time is it and what’s the weather like” – while its answers are more accurate thanks to Google’s search engine.
Alexa is notorious for falsely recognising its own name and waking up, whereas Google is less prone to listening into irrelevant conversations.
Compatibility Alexa’s claim to work with over 60,000 smart gadgets is a significant advantage over Google’s 30,000.
The gap is closing, but Alexa also supports an app store offering everything from Tube updates to bedtime stories – something Google doesn’t offer yet.
Product ranges Although this is an analysis of virtual assistants rather than smart speakers, it’s worth noting Alexa comes in a wider variety of speaker sizes and styles.
There’s the standard Echo, the compact Dot, the beefy Echo Plus, the Dolby Atmos-powered Studio and the screen-equipped Show and Spot. Sound quality is generally strong.
Google’s standard Home resembles an air freshener and the Home Max looks like a standalone speaker, while the Home Mini is an Echo Dot-aping fabric-covered pebble.
The Google Home Hub is a screen-equipped device, while the Nest Hub Max even has a front-facing camera for remote home monitoring and video calling.