The Upgrade

Google and Amazon Fought a Smart-Home Battle at CES 2019

Who won? It depends on how you look at it.

You could not escape “Hey Google” at CES 2019.

HHow much did consumers spend on smart-home technology in 2018? $31.4 billion. That’s how much, according to Statista. By 2022, it’ll be almost double that.

The obvious leader in all this — the company that owns a significant share of that smart-home industry — is Amazon, which has reportedly sold 100 million Alexa devices. Google, which sells a whole collection of Google Assistant-supporting home devices, controls another chunk. The two companies are locked in a battle for the heart and soul of your smart-home experience, with Apple’s HomeKit standing off to the side. Many smart-home devices were on display at CES 2019, but the tech conference did little to clarify which company is on the path to total market dominance.

Each took a different approach to capture our attention. Google was all shock and awe, blanketing the convention with billboards and constructing a ride in the style of Disney’s It’s a Small World. The thing was so massive, they poured a fresh concrete foundation to support it. Amazon surely spent a fraction of what Google did — I can’t remember a single Alexa billboard — but it still owned huge mindshare across a wide array of vendors at the show. Apple’s HomeKit and Siri remain third wheels, supported by manufacturers along with Alexa and Google Assistant but never front and center. And let’s not forget the Rodney Dangerfield of voice assistants: Samsung’s Bixby, which enjoyed a big play at Samsung’s monolithic CES booth but was mostly absent everywhere else.

Based on the coverage, Amazon Alexa surely emerged triumphant. It was part of so many products, from cars to toilets, that many found it impossible to ignore.

Google tried harder, but Alexa was everywhere. Photo: Lance Ulanoff

But to understand who’s really on top in the voice assistant and smart-home war, you need to look beyond the show floor and consider the state of play in the months and weeks leading up to the world’s largest consumer electronics show.

CES 2019 kicked off just days after we learned about Amazon Alexa’s commanding sales number, but the reality is that Google’s been making up ground with a growing number of homemade Google Home gadgets and more and more third-party products supporting Google Assistant. And just a few weeks ago, Apple invited me to a New York office, where it extolled the momentum of its HomeKit platform and previewed a half-dozen or so new smart-home gadgets like Belkin’s WeMo Smart Light Switch and the first HomeKit-compatible video doorbell from Netatmo.

Netatmo’s new video doorbell is the first to support Apple HomeKit.

Google, obviously aware of the momentum it had entering CES, simply tried harder. Apple failed to buy booth space and collect all of the gadgets that finally support HomeKit. Can it really afford to sit back and wait for everyone to come knocking?

In the meantime, Amazon’s iconic Alexa blue permeated the show floor. Seriously: The blue light was in clocks, TVs, speakers, locks, and, yes, that Kohler Numi Alexa toilet. Though Google Assistant’s branding includes blue, red, orange, and green, its most recognizable color at the conference was white: White sweatsuit- and wool-cap-wearing Google spokespeople were as ubiquitous as massage chairs. If I saw one of those white outfits, I knew a Google Assistant gadget was close by.

That juxtaposition — Alexa’s placement in dozens of products that you simply discovered by walking the show floor versus Google using people to demand your attention — was telling.

Without a buzzworthy Google Assistant product, Google resorted to stunts: the people and an honest-to-goodness ride. Clearly modeled on many a classic Disney people-mover experiences, the Google Ride took convention-goers on a journey through one typical person’s day, showing them in vivid, animatronic detail how they could manage their lives via voice and smart-home connectivity. It also ended with people getting a free Google Home Hub.

It was a memorable experience, but why does Google feel like it has to hit people over the heads to drive home how wonderful their lives will be through automation? Amazon grew to 100 million Alexa installs without major product launch events or truly memorable CES booths. This year, it built an elegant and relatively subdued space with an Alexa-enabled BMW at the center.

On the surface, Amazon appears to be winning without really trying. Most people I talked to about Google’s ride were giddy but worried it was overkill. They were also equally aware of Amazon’s looming presence and Alexa’s inescapable reach.

However, to say Amazon is winning simply because of ubiquity would be wrong. It started with a product and technology that worked without forcing consumers to fundamentally alter how they live. In the smart-home space, that matters. In some ways, Amazon followed a consumer technology road first paved by Nest, which is now owned by Google.

During the show, I met designer Fred Bould, who helped design GoPro’s Hero 3 and the original Nest smart thermostat. He’s now involved with a new thermostat called Daikin One Smart Thermostat (which supports both Alexa and Google Assistant). Bould and I talked about why the original Nest was such a breakthrough product in the smart-home space. When Nest first launched in 2011, smart-home technology was far from a new idea. Yet Nest was undeniably the breakthrough product. Bould told me about how carefully they managed the design. The interface was thought out when he came on board, but the look and feel of the product and how users would interact with it was not. He described the incredible attention to detail they applied to the industrial design.

I wasn’t surprised. When I installed a first-generation Nest in my home, I was struck by the marriage of simplicity, ease of use, and obvious intelligence. It made sense, and it worked.

Amazon’s Echo was that kind of product. No, it wasn’t as elegant a design as the Nest, but as soon as I unpacked it, connected Echo to my network, and spoke to Alexa, I understood how to use it, and it understood me. It was the perfect way to introduce Alexa and smart-home automation to my home and millions of others.

Another key Amazon ingredient: openness. Amazon’s early, canny decision to open Alexa’s APIs is why the technology can be found in everything from a BMW to a tiny startup’s clock radio. Google Assistant is also open, but because of a later start, it’s still playing catch-up. HomeKit is closed in typical Apple fashion, and the company says that’s for a good reason. A closed system with vetted products means easier on-boarding, single sign-on, no personal data in the cloud, and tighter security. That all may be true, but that closed approach — and the lack of a cheap smart speaker — has left Apple’s HomeKit trailing far behind.

Sure, Amazon probably won the mini smart-home battle of CES 2019, but this war for the smart-home hearts and minds is far from over. Google is gaining traction, and as I’ve always said, don’t bet against Apple.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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