Now that Android is getting Google Assistant, here’s how it works


Ok Google, what can Google Assistant do?

The answer depends on what hardware you’re using.

Google announced last month it would soon release Google Assistant — its latest iteration of an Alexa/Siri-like voice tool — on phones running newer versions of Android after users install an upgrade. These phones will have the same Assistant capabilities as Google’s own Android phone, Pixel, as well as Google Home.

Making Assistant available on more Android phones allows Google to gain more users without depending on hardware sales. At least 200 million devices will have access to Assistant, according to Google. Pixel and Home were released only last year as part of a new push by Google into hardware.

The effort can also help Google compete with Amazon, which has sold roughly 6.3 million Alexa-powered Echos and Dots, according to estimates from research firm Strategy Analytics. Google sold about 400,000 Home devices in 2016 after being released late in the year and is estimated to altogether sell 1 million by the middle of this year, according to the firm.

Asked if releasing Assistant on more Android phones was a strategy for competing with Amazon, Google said the goal for Assistant had always been “to have a conversation with Google across many surfaces, including your phone.”

Assistant responds to spoken and written commands, to complete tasks like answering trivia questions, setting an alarm, checking flight itineraries, or texting a friend. In addition to Pixel and Home, it’s also available on Google’s messaging app Allo and Nvidia’s Shield TV, a television streaming device.

But Assistant’s capabilities will vary depending on the platform. On Pixel, for example, it doesn’t have exactly the same skills as when used with Allo, or on Google Home.

Here are some unique uses for Assistant in different settings:

  • If you want to order products from Google Express retailers like Costco, Whole Foods Market or Walgreens, you can only do that on its Home device. This may change in the future.
  • Assistant previously could not control Nest smarthome devices using Pixel, but now it can. The capability has been available on Google Home a bit longer.
  • With Allo, you can use Assistant while in the middle of a messaging conversation with a friend. Just type @google before a query like, “Find a place for us to get tacos nearby.”
  • Language capabilities also differ by device. Home, which is operated entirely by voice commands, currently responds only to English, according to Google. On Pixel, Assistant also understands German. In Allo, Assistant is available in English, German, Japanese, Hindi and Portuguese. Google says it can offer more languages when people access Assistant via text. That’s why Allo has more language capabilities.

Another thing: Assistant is not the same as Google Now, a feature of the Google Search app that used to be its own brand. That brand has since been deprecated, and Google Now’s capabilities have been incorporated into Assistant and Search, according to Google. But for a period, Assistant and Now existed concurrently.

Assistant is also not the same as the Google app, which is just for Search and runs on both Android and iOS. This can be confusing, because the Google app responds to the same wake word as Assistant: “Ok Google.” Also, the Google app has some features that overlap with Assistant, such as voice search. Users with phones running newer versions of Android are slated to receive Assistant through an update to the Google App, according to Google.

Releasing Assistant on the Android platform lets Google expose new users to the new software without that growth being limited by hardware sales. In addition to competing with Amazon, Google is competing with Apple. Apple’s Siri, while considered “dumb” compared to its competitors, has the advantage of being installed on iPhones, and Apple has sold more than a billion of them.

But there’s a well-known challenge for Google with this release, notes Gartner research vice president Mark Hung: More than half of Android phones run versions of the operating system too old to support Assistant. It’s often up to carriers and manufacturers to upgrade the phones’ systems.


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