The stars of Google’s hardware event this week may have been the new Pixel 2 and 2 XL, but the new phones were not the most important devices Mountain View unveiled. That accolade belongs to the company’s two new smart speakers, the Google Home Mini and Google Home Max, and especially the former.
A year ago, when Google first jumped into the connected speaker race, it did so already trailing Amazon and its slew of Alexa devices at a significant distance. In the months since, the market around audio devices with built-in virtual assistants has grown increasingly crowded, with Apple joining the fray and Amazon adding a dumbfounding amount of devices, both first and third-party, to its portfolio.
The quest for the perfect virtual assistant vehicle has been fascinating to watch. Amazon has taken a spaghetti approach, throwing Alexa in everything it can imagine in the hopes it will have the perfect device for every consumer in the market. Apple leaned unsurprisingly toward the high-end with its HomePod, a $349 connected speaker that puts as much emphasis on sound as it does smarts. Then there’s Google, which has slotted itself somewhere in the middle.
Google has been more measured in its approach than Amazon, but also more willing to diversify than Apple. It’s okay making several products that do essentially the same thing but are better in various aspects. The company has made it clear, though, that it prefers to make a small number of products it considers excellent, rather than a large number that struggles to maintain quality.
And thus we have the Google Home Mini and Max. The latter is a direct competitor to Apple’s HomePod, which hasn’t even launched yet, and Sonos speakers, one of which now has Alexa built-in. It’s an intriguing product, but it has a more limited appeal than the Mini. Consumers who care deeply about audio will (hopefully) love it, but those merely interested in the idea of a smart speaker shouldn’t go near its $399 price tag. That’s why the Mini is so important.
smartly pointed out this summer that the Echo Dot is the device all tech companies should be chasing. Forget the original Echo, it’s the bite-sized, $50 Alexa machine that’s really moving the needle.
The goal with all these virtual assistant devices is not to sell a ton of hardware, that’s merely the first step toward the ultimate goal. What Amazon and Google (and Apple, sort of) are really doing is making the world comfortable with the artificial intelligence that lives within the machines. The companies are competing to see which assistant, Google or Alexa, can be the next big thing. The new frontier in technology is machine learning and virtual assistants, and both Amazon and Google want to be at the head of the line.
The best way to get your assistant into as many homes as possible is to make an accessible, affordable device it lives inside. The Google Home Mini is exactly that. At $49, it’s the same price as the Echo Dot, and a similar size. Google’s offering has a leg up in the looks department as Amazon hasn’t yet updated the Dot, like it did with the larger Echo last month. Like the full-sized Home before it, the Mini slides into your existing decor easier than the Dot, making it a less obvious piece of tech in your living room.
It’s also dead simple. No buttons, just a mute switch on the back. You can tap both sides to raise and lower the volume, but otherwise it’s no more than a speaker you can talk to. The combination of simplicity and price is exactly what tech companies need when trying to convince the masses to adopt a new idea. Amazon understood that early on, and Google is making sure it doesn’t fall behind.
Echo Dots sell like crazy. Time will tell if Google can match Amazon, it still trails in awareness among the general public, but just having the option available is a big step. Google would be smart to market the Mini like crazy, it’s the best shot the company has at getting its assistant in as many households as possible.