Back at the end of May 2016, Google held their annual developer conference called Google I/O, and while they didn’t use this time to announce new smartphones - that came later in the year as expected - they did announce and show off new hardware. This was our first glimpse of Google Home. A stylish take on a smart speaker that could integrate into our lives and provide us with a hands-free way to connect and control a number of other smart devices around the home, like lights, thermostats, and presumably anything that could be considered an IoT device with the ability to connect up to a local Wi-Fi connection. While Google Home is a smart speaker and it in fact dose connect up to and control a handful of different smart, connected products, such as the Nest thermostat and Philips Hue Lights, there are many that it still has no compatibility with, and this is a problem. At least for now.
The biggest issue with this is that it leaves many people out in the cold on using Google Home the way it’s intended to be used, or the way it should be intended to be used. Google Home is a competitor to Amazon’s Echo in many ways and although it does do some things quite a bit better than the Echo, thanks to being powered by Google Assistant, there are quite a few things it doesn’t do as well too. The most obvious and one which has already been touched on briefly is its lack of compatibility with other hardware types. There is no doubt that more hardware support is coming. Google would be foolish not to have this in mind and chances are they’re working rather diligently to introduce more compatible devices and widen the scope of Google Home’s control, but at the moment it’s hard not to look at it and see it as nothing more than a Google Search made manifest into a physical product that you can have a conversation with, which is also capable of controlling a few smart home devices. Of course, to its credit it doesn’t just answer your questions and feed you a response, it’ll actually complete actions for you too, as displayed in the Google Home demo video that was shown off during Google I/O, but it needs to do more, perhaps the launch should have been pushed back a bit to allow time for more device support from the start.
All that said, Google Home is by no means a crippled product, at least not on a large scale. It has compatibility with Nest, naturally, as well as Samsung’s SmartThings devices, IFTTT, and Philips Hue. However, when comparing this to Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo speaker it feels a little flat, as the Echo supports all those device types as well as Ecobee, Wink, Insteon, Belkin WeMo, Lifx, Big Ass Fans, and then a whole range of other devices thanks to the Alexa Skills, which has enabled developers to take the software and open up support for other smart device brands and categories that have not yet been added by Amazon themselves. Therein might lie one of the bigger strengths of the Echo, and by comparison one of the bigger faults of Google Home - the open software that lets developers add compatibility. This alone would help Google Home immensely, as Google wouldn’t have to be the sole developer to make everything work. They would be able to rely on the community to assist them in adding support for various devices, and that could have been huge.
It’s not all bad, though, as there are ways around not having support for a specific device type or brand of smart devices. With a little bit of ingenuity and the use of IFTTT and some other products, it is possible to get Google Home to work with smart devices that are not on the supported list. Using IFTTT along with a Raspberry Pi with a Z Wave antenna running Domoticz (which is a lightweight home automation system), one could enable commands to complete a task using IFTTT’s “Maker” channel for Google Assistant, opening up a handful of possibilities that weren’t there before, such as getting Google Home to start your coffee brewer in the the morning. This is all possible thanks to Maker and Domoticz, with Domoticz being the Home Automation element and the Maker channel being the bridge between Google Home and the devices connected to the network through Domoticz, by sending and receiving the commands between them.
Despite this, though, not everyone is going to know about this method and surely it won’t work with everything. There’s also the fact that this is not as straightforward a method as having Google Home connect and talk directly to a specific brand of home automated device, like it does with Nest. Of course, Nest is essentially Google’s own product, so its support was assured from the beginning. While Google will more than likely be opening up support for more devices in the future, soon or further out, it still lags behind the Echo in this regard. Yes, the Amazon Echo has been out longer and has had more time to gain support for more devices, but this shouldn’t matter. The argument could be made that Google Home should have had support for the same list of device brands so as to be on more equal footing with the Echo, and the fact that it’s not feels just a little bit lazy.
The good news, at least to some degree, is that Google does plan to open the SDK for Google Assistant this year. The downside is that it won’t be opening up until next month, so those who would be able to work with the SDK and further empower Google Home to control and manage different devices that aren’t already supported, will have to wait to get their hands on the software that will make it all possible. For now, Google Assistant is closed off and allows for no access for third-parties, the development community, or really anyone outside of Google. While the Google Assistant SDK is being opened up fairly quickly after the initial release of the product, it could still be almost two months away if Google doesn’t release the SDK until the end of December, which means realistically there won’t be support for more devices and third-party integration of Google Assistant until early next year and beyond. This leaves customers with a more limited offering of devices that can easily work with the speaker until then, which is a shame. Still, Google is releasing the Google Assistant SDK and that does mean that Google Home will eventually be gaining more support. Google did mention prior to the Google Home launch that they had plans to do this, they just hadn’t mentioned when at the time.
Of course, compatibility with devices is not the only misstep with Google Home. In its current state it only allows for connection of one Google account, which means those with multiple speakers and multiple family members in the home that would want to connect up their own accounts aren’t allowed to do so. This might not seem like a problem, but on the contrary, it certainly can be for many users. Perhaps not a big one, but a problem nonetheless. The reason it can pose an issue is that with only one Google account, all the data that ends up connected to it from search queries to commands to contextual conversations, resides with that one account. This means that any user who speaks to Google Home and would want to carry that connected data with them on their own Android device would not be able to because their account isn’t connected to the speaker. Google is working on bringing multiple account support into the fold as well, but it feels like something that's a little bit of an oversight and should have been implemented from the beginning, perhaps more so than support for more devices, as Google is positioning this device for the home and chances are that many people who buy one will have multiple people (and thereby multiple Google accounts) who could benefit from it.
It also seems to have some issue (speaking from personal experience) with recognizing the Ok Google Command. This is limited to a small percentage of times, mind you, and it’s also possible that the commands were being recognized but it wasn’t noticeable because the device was across the room. This could be looked at as more of a personal issue as the lights on top are there to provide you with a visual notification that it’s heard you and is waiting for you to issue a task or ask a question, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that people talking to the speaker might not always be able to see the lights when interacting with it. What’s more, is that Google Home and other Google Assistant-enabled devices seem to sometimes compete with each other for the interaction. With Google Home and two other Pixel devices in the same room, all powered by Google Assistant and all designed to respond to the same commands, you can imagine how it might begin to become a problem with knowing what device is going to recognize the commands and following up with a response. Google might be able to get around this by allowing users to customize the OK Google command, but it doesn't seem like this is something that will be implemented. Because of this, right now speaking with Google Home feels a little cumbersome, as there was more than one occasion earlier this week my Pixel would pick up the command instead of or alongside Google Home, but would then kick back the response instead of the speaker, as it almost seemed like Google Home wasn't able to process the command due to there being another source that could act in the same way. Most of these are just minor things that make Google Home a little less than stellar, but they’re also all things which can be fixed and Google is surely doing just that, working towards fixing them, and when they are fixed, Google Home will end up being a more cohesive and well-rounded product that could benefit just about everyone.