2019 wasn’t a revolutionary year for smart home tech, but both Google and Amazon have worked hard to round out their product lines, hone their software and clear the mess left by toddler-age devices. Amazon- and Google-powered smart homes have brought the category into its adolescence, and we’re shedding a ceremonial tear at their loss of innocence. Soon Google Assistant and Alexa will be driving your car and stealing your credit card.
So which kid will be the burnout and which will go Ivy League and never call you again once they’re financially solvent? Who’s to say? But 2019 might be a good indicator.
David Priest: I think Amazon pretty handily won 2019 when it comes to hardware. The online megaretailer rounded out its lineup of smart speakers and displays, giving customers small, medium and large options for both categories. And while some of the new devices feel like minor iterations on past products (like the Dot with Clock), others are really good additions that blow Google’s direct competitors out of the water. For instance, the premium-sounding Echo Studio received a much stronger review from us than last year’s Google Home Max, and it costs less, too.
Molly Price: Google certainly didn’t release the menagerie of products Amazon did this year, but it still brought some significant new devices to market. We saw a redesigned (and better sounding) Nest Mini, a second generation of its mesh router system, Nest Wifi, and a new Nest Hub Max smart display. That gives Google Assistant users their choice of two nice-size Google smart displays, not to mention Google Assistant-enabled options from Lenovo such as the Lenovo Smart Clock.
That said, Google really only gave us one brand new product this year (the Nest Hub Max), while Amazon delivered the Show 8, Show 5, Echo Flex, Echo Studio and more. But more isn’t always better. Amazon’s avalanche of Alexa in every shape and size of smart thing might be too complicated a lineup for some consumers.
DP: Google definitely has some strong products, but just looking at the selection of recent Echo speakers and displays, I still think Amazon gets the nod for 2019’s hardware.
MP: All right, let’s talk software and smart-home integration. Google attempted to unify the Nest and Google brands this year by shutting down the Works with Nest program and flipping the switch on Works with Google Assistant. It did not go well. Users who made the irreversible change weren’t happy to realize that they couldn’t connect with popular third-party services like IFTTT any longer, which left Google scrambling to clean up the mess.
Works with Assistant woes aside, Google did add features like free YouTube music (there’s no hope for YouTube on any Amazon devices), continued conversation so you don’t have to constantly say “Hey, Google” and celebrity voices, too (hi there, John Legend).
DP: Google’s smart home switch-over didn’t go well, but I do have to commend Google for trying to lay the foundation for a better future smart home platform in Works with Assistant. And software is still Google’s greatest strength. Amazon is closing the gap, but Google Assistant is still much more naturalistic than Alexa, and the Nest Hub’s smart display interface is still more responsive and intuitive than the Echo Show’s.
Aside from including Zigbee support in the $230 Show and the $150 Echo Plus, Amazon isn’t doing much to support the expanding market of smart home devices. Sure, Alexa’s open API better equips companies to work with its ecosystem than Google’s more restrictive approach — but smart home success in 2019 is about preparing for the future. And Google seems poised to build a more holistic vision for the smart home moving forward, given the variety of popular tools the company offers (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Search, Nest, YouTube, etc.).
MP: While there are thousands of devices that work with each of these brands, Google is building a future-focused platform and thoughtfully improving it with each update and integration. Nest smart display interfaces are more intuitive than ever, and it’s really those small details like easier light bulb controls that make life simpler for humans living in a smart home.
DP: When it comes to privacy, neither Google nor Amazon are shining examples, and neither restricts human review of your voice recordings unless you explicitly opt out. Apple, by contrast, protects your recordings by default. As for device privacy, Amazon was wise to include physical shutters on its latest camera-equipped smart displays — a feature that doesn’t require users to just trust the company, the way the digital kill switch on Google’s face-tracking Nest Hub Max does.
MP: We’re definitely seeing companies market themselves as more privacy-focused right now. The Nest Hub Max shows a green light, for example, any time it records audio, video or photos. Amazon was smart to implement a physical camera shutter, but let’s not forget that Amazon also owns Ring — the video doorbell brand that has come under fire for sharing user locations with police departments and patenting unethical facial-recognition tech.
But honestly, this category doesn’t really have any clear “winner.” Tech giants have so consistently demonstrated a willingness to jeopardize user privacy for the sake of profit that we can only name a biggest loser.
DP: True, and I think that loser is, by a small margin, is Google. While Amazon profits off selling targeted ads based on user purchase data, the bulk of the company’s revenue still comes from sales on the website. By contrast, Google is fundamentally dependent on access to data — whether that’s by letting companies read your private emails on Gmail, or by gathering private health data on millions of people. The lesson here, though, is that you shouldn’t trust any tech companies to have your best interest at heart. Put covers on your cameras, opt out of voice data collection and read the fine print, regardless of whether you buy Google or Amazon products.
Loser: Google (but really, all the people whose data it’s monetizing.)
So who won 2019? There’s a reason Google and Amazon are the two front-runners in the digital assistant race: they both boast some serious strengths. But while the search giant prepared for the future, Amazon turned out a handful of consistently strong devices, and it showed marginally more scruples than Google when it came to protecting privacy.
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