As voice enabled assistants take over the world, it is easy for us Android users to just accept that Google Assistant is king. But if you haven’t heard of Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, you’re missing out.

“Alexa, turn on my desk light.” A simple phrase that has become the way I start my day. Most of the AA team starts their personal assistant actions by saying “Okay, Google.” I can’t blame them, but I prefer the former over the latter. As it turns out, the division in our group is representative of the competition between these two powerhouse ecosystems, and this is nearly on par with some of the best Android vs iOS banter we’ve seen. I think this competition is short-sighted. Alexa and Assistant are two very different beasts.

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It used to take just a small jab at either iOS or Android to start an argument between fans of these operating systems. As the software and fans have matured, the arguments are few and far between. (I mean, Android is just better, right?) This leaves room to focus on other aspects of our connected lives, with personal assistants being foremost on our thoughts right now.

Well, at least after the removal of headphone jacks. That’s just crazy.

Where to find Alexa and Assistant

Google is, as we all know, a major player in all things internet. Amazon, on the other hand, is a massive retailer. It’s mostly online, but slowly transitioning to brick and mortar retail operations as well. Not exactly the two companies we’d have expected to be in a battle for your voice assistant needs.

Google Assistant is available in many phones through a small handful of apps, and now across a handful of fun Google devices, including the Google Home, Home Mini and more. You can fire up Assistant through many cars, smart TVs and more. Basically, Google is doing their best to make sure you can be anywhere, at any time, and take advantage of those hot words: “Okay, Google!”

If Google Assistant is everywhere, they’re surely winning this battle. Right? Nope! Amazon has been at it a little bit longer. Perhaps Alexa the software is not as old as Google’s voice input abilities, but Alexa-based hardware for the home has a huge head start. The original Alexa Echo speaker was in homes almost exactly two years before Google Home started shipping. The Echo Dot, a hockey puck sized speaker, is nearing its third version with the first Google Home Mini just landing in stores. 

With several devices dedicated to connecting to Alexa, Amazon has been branching out big time. Most recently they added Alexa into their Amazon Shopping and Amazon Music apps. This isn’t just voice input either; we’re talking almost full Alexa functionality. That means that Alexa is available on just as many, if not more, Android devices as Google Assistant.

Of course, as our own Rob Triggs pointed out, Amazon doesn’t need to be in phones if it’s in everything else

With now ten Amazon hardware types featuring Alexa, you can grab the Wand, Echo Dot, Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Spot, Echo Show, Echo Look, Amazon Tap, Fire TV sticks and a selection of Fire Tablets. Some of these are audio only, something Alexa does very well, and others have screens attached. 

Alexa DevicesRelated reading:
Google Home Mini and Home Max hands-on
Amazon releases new Echo devices for the home
Amazon Alexa wins CES 2017
Google Assistant – a closer look at the devices that work with it

Phones are an interesting part of the equation, for obvious reasons, and so are phone calls. The ability to make voice calls between Echo devices very quickly turned into the ability to call phones from those same Echo machines. Google Home is not making calls yet, but Assistant on your phone can definitely do it.

The third-party market is also heating up, with players like Sony putting out speakers with Google Assistant baked in, and adding Alexa to their TVs. I was in the Bose store just the other day, where they are using and selling Echo Dots as a part of their full-home sound systems. I’d be interested to know if Nest thermostats work better with Alexa or Assistant. Amazon lists 91 other items with Alexa either baked in or fully supported. 

Is it a box or a set of 1s and 0s?

We need to understand that Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are software services. Those fancy speakers are simply vessels to interact with the software. They’re also often at the root of arguments between fans of these ecosystems.

Our very own Joe Hindy did an amazing job pitting the most popular Smart Assistants today against each other. He knew full well that he was accessing Google Assistant using an expensive smartphone, but was accessing Alexa through a $35 tablet. He knew this was not the ideal method to access Alexa, but he pit it against Google anyway.

Joe should not have had to use different hardware, each device should be able to interact with Alexa, the software, in the same way.

Alexa did pretty well in Joe’s tests. I have the older version of that tablet, but I also have the second generation Echo Dot. If Joe had used the Echo Dot for his tests, Amazon would have ranked higher. But really Joe should’t have had to use different hardware; each device should be able to interact with Alexa, the software, in the same way. If you’re keeping score, that’s a point for Google.

Despite this, I’m still at a stalemate if I had to say one of these services is better than the other. Both services don’t work exactly the same on all devices. Google Assistant still can’t even make phone calls. Google’s chat app, Allo, is the only place where the place where you can subscribe to things like daily weather updates (for more on Allo and how it uses Assistant, check our article).

Here’s Joe’s video, for those that missed it:

Ideology of an assistant

Not all assistants are created equal. More to the point, not all assistants are created to do the same things.

Time and again, when I hear the Alexa vs Assistant argument, it is based around “your assistant can’t do this…” In my head I know they are correct, however, I don’t want my assistant to do ‘that,’ so why is that a problem?

Joe rightfully concluded that the right assistant for you is likely going to be the one that ties into your software world. That is, if you use Google’s services such as Calendar and Gmail, Google Assistant is a smart assistant to use. I agree, but with reservations.

Amazon Alexa is not a personal assistant. You can use it as such, but you are seriously depriving yourself of the service’s best features.

Amazon Alexa is not a personal assistant.

Google Assistant sees my Google Calendar with ease and Alexa can see it too, to a basic degree. On the flip side, I cannot get Google Assistant to play nice with my Philips Hue lighting setup. As far as controlling my smart home accessories, Alexa is the king in my home.

I use Alexa devices to play synced music throughout my home. The Echo Dot works great when hooked up to a real sound system or Bluetooth headphones. Also, yes, you can upload some of your own music collection to Amazon, so you won’t be stuck with their streaming service. Don’t get me wrong, Google Assistant can do these things as well, that’s just not how I use it.

For me, Google Assistant is a great way to access the power of Google Search. It is a great way to control my daily schedule and communications, just like I’d expect from a real life assistant. I would not, however, ask a human assistant to turn off the lights in my bedroom just before I go to sleep at night. There are other boundaries I would not want crossed, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Again, Alexa is not a personal assistant, it is a powerful tool for automation and more.

Programmatic decisions – it’s got skills

There are differences between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa that run down to their very cores. Google and Amazon made some drastically different development decisions, which I believe will become more evident as the systems mature.

Google is building software that is all but secret. They utilize their secret sauce in the back-end to manage web queries while accessing your personal data from their services and your connected devices— some huge security hurdles there. This approach creates a system that they control, which allows Google to produce an amazingly personal experience.

The down side to Google’s approach is that third-party developers are limited in how they can tie into the system. Utilizing voice input through Google Assistant to make your small Android app do something fun may never be possible. Google itself has hurdles in their software, mostly because of their Android Intents ideology. On your smartphone, Assistant passes off a phone call to the Phone app, which is why Home can’t make calls. It’s just another app, like the  phone, on an Android device, rather than an Android device itself. 

Alexa is way different. From a developer’s perspective Alexa turns into simply a top level tool to receive voice input from a user, and voice a response. Amazon allows you to create your own apps, called Skills, that you can publish for anyone to use.

Creating a basic Alexa Skill is easier than you might imagine, I hope we can explore that one day.

I sat with Adam Molina of Sound Guys recently and we chatted about just this. Instead of installing an app to your device, as you would with Android, you essentially install Skills to your account. This allows you to use that app from each and every Alexa device; assuming it supports the action, of course.

Amazon has a number of functions that they’ve built into Alexa itself, but from a technical perspective, Alexa is a software platform. In comparison, Google Assistant is a service that exists on a platform. In a sense, the real competition should be between Alexa and Android.

Hold on, Alexa vs Android?

It would be silly of Amazon to try taking on the Android OS. Amazon itself has a whole line of tablets that run Android, but they also run Alexa. 

But what I was trying to explain is that calling Alexa just an assistant app would be a lot like calling Android software for making phone calls. Both can do those things, but it would be a pretty gross understatement to define them on just those things.

Can’t we all just get along?

In time, I hope these two pieces of software can co-exist. It certainly may not be the goal of either Google or Amazon to give up any ground, but they clearly have different strengths.

Alexa will never find me directions to Joe’s house, and Assistant will never help me shop for stuff. Google’s core business means I’ll always use Assistant for web searches. Amazon’s robust Skill platform means I’ll always use Alexa for catching the news, turning on the lights and playing a game.

Google Assistant is my smart assistant, Amazon Alexa is my smart home controller.

Time to discuss: do I have it all wrong? Hit the comments and let us know if Alexa has what it takes to compete with Assistant for your smart assistant needs.

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Author: Jonathan Feist