Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant platforms are ready for the Holidays, with both companies putting more effort in this year to make their A.I. better for users who are celebrating. Both Assistant's functionality and Alexa's Skills range from Santa tracking to festivities-based home automation and more. That's great news for those users who want to get in on the technology-driven celebrations and who happen to own an Alexa-enabled device, Google Home, or any number of other such A.I.-enhanced devices that aren't directly made by the companies. With all of the efforts that Google has increasingly put into its own Holiday apps and applets over the past few years, it can be easy to forget that Amazon's Alexa is actually the more popular platform among consumers and has a lot of similar features. Although the platform does differ in that it often requires Skills to be enabled on an account attached to an Alexa device before they can be used, both provide great functionality for users looking to get into the Christmas spirit.
Asking Alexa what she wants for Christmas, for example, results in what may be a surprising answer. Without giving too much away, it's probably safe to say that the response from Alexa reflects the sentiments of a lead designer or executive at the company rather than what a digital assistant might actually want. Meanwhile, Google's Home-based A.I. assistant also has its own response to the question, which is somewhat more in keeping with the traditions associated with the Holidays. Having said that, there aren't any rules about what Christmas wishes can encompass so the response from either is, unsurprisingly, both interesting and entertaining. It's also a functionality that doesn't require any Skills to be enabled for Alexa.
Looking past that, both platforms also perform well with respect to pumping out holiday music. For Alexa, having access to Amazon Prime or other music-specific subscriptions available to users allows a wide variety of music to be played. There's also a skill specifically designed for the playback of Christmas music, for those who don't have a subscription to music services but still want to fill their home with Christmas Music. Google's Assistant, meanwhile, has similar features and can play from Google Play Music, YouTube Red, and more. That's in addition to free playback through YouTube or free services like Pandora. On the other hand, users can also ask either assistant to sing a Christmas carol – each with their own take on it. When testing out both, Amazon has obviously put more effort into their version of the feature, with Alexa singing a full verse of O Christmas Tree, while Google Assistant plays only a stylized music-box rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Both platforms will also read classic Christmas stories on queue, although Alexa does go further here as well and is able to read some stories by request. For example, Alexa can read The Night Before Christmas on request, or even play musical versions in song format, but Google's Assistant requires users to own the book as part of their Google Play Books Library in order to read it. In fact, Assistant won't read any Christmas stories at all, as of this writing, unless they are owned by the user in question. Alexa also outdoes Google when it comes to playing Christmas sounds to create a more festive atmosphere around the house. Asking Google to "play Christmas sounds" results in a YouTube playback involving a Christmas soundtrack and fireplace sounds. That will, of course, also show associated visuals on any connected displays but that only shows by request. While Alexa won't show any visuals, functionality goes further via an associated Christmas Sounds Alexa Skill. With the skill enabled, asking Alexa to "play Christmas Sounds" results in a wealth of sounds which emulate a Christmas party, complete with carolers and animal sounds associated with the holiday. There's even an interesting Easter Egg when a user asks Alexa to stop.
Meanwhile, both platforms can readily control the atmosphere tied to an actual holiday gathering through the smart home functionality each has built in. That means users can easily control smart plugs or lights directly in order to set the mood for the holidays, turning lights off or on, or enabling whatever other features are available through a given set of smart Christmas lights. Both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa also have varying degrees of functionality in terms of connected displays, with both being connectable through a wide variety of connectivity platforms, as well. That means videos or photos suitable for the holidays can be displayed on request to further enhance a user's holiday experience. Google's is arguably more robust but both have a lot to offer on that front.
Both platforms will also respond to various questions about Santa Claus, such as where Santa is – via a simple question on Assistant or through the Norad Santa Skill for Amazon Alexa. Beyond that, users can ask any number of other questions, such as how old Santa Claus is or, for those adventurous enough to ask, if he's really real. However, Amazon also has one final functionality that may come in handy for those who want to go beyond music, lights, and tracking Santa Claus, thanks to an Alexa Skill called Christmas Kindness. By enabling the skill, Alexa-enabled devices will provide users with random acts of kindness they can perform in order to make others' lives just a little bit easier. That's something Google hasn't put any real effort into enabling, although users of Assistant-enabled devices can get information about random acts of kindness in the form of a more basic search. While Amazon does have one or two edges over Google, there's a lot to discover on both platforms for those interested in checking the Holiday features out.