It’s 2019 and after several years of growing smart speaker sales, the top two contenders — Google and Amazon — are now fighting back and forth for the top sales spot each quarter, even though Amazon’s first-mover status provides it more lifetime sales.
So they must be nearing parity, right?
In many ways, yes, they are. In one way, however, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. All you need to do is look at how these two juggernauts provide third-party functionality, which Google calls Actions, while Amazon has Skills. I started thinking about this when I saw recent data about how many these add-on interactions are available for both speaker families.
Voicebot.ai, which tracks the number of Google Actions and Alexa Skills, says that as of last month, Google had 4,253 Actions for its Assistant and Home products in the U.S., which is 2.5 more than the prior year. That sounds great, but let’s put it in perspective. That same report notes that Amazon had 60,000 Alexa Skills available to U.S. consumers and businesses.
That’s a vast difference. But wait: the Google Assistant Actions page itself says there are more than one million Actions.
Are there? I have no idea because you can’t easily see the whole catalog of Actions on that web page. There are a few recommended options for every category and a View More link to see additional choices. Well, if there are a million Actions in there, I can’t find them. And that’s part of the problem, but we’ll get back to that.
One of the largest categories of Actions I saw was for News. That makes sense because listening to local or national news sounds like a fairly common thing you might want to do on a smart speaker. I found roughly 100 Actions here.
I saw slightly fewer Actions in the Smart Home “Control Lighting” category. Games rivaled the News section in terms of the number of available Actions. Where would one million Actions be hiding?
Regardless of the actual figure, the discovery of these Google Actions is an issue that Amazon doesn’t have with its Alexa Skills. Amazon treats the Skills section of its website just like an app store, making it much easier to find just the right functionality you want to Alexa to learn with a button press. Amazon also lets you search for these Skills directly in the Amazon Alexa app, however, something that Google doesn’t provide in its Home app. It should.
That’s not the only difference that’s holding Google Actions back from truly challenging Alexa Skills, though. Amazon treats Skills for its platform as a first-class citizen by comparison to how Google showcases Actions, which is more like a secondary product or service.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Amazon Alexa Developer Blog to see how often there’s new information, APIs, samples or tools discussed on that site. I find something useful or interesting there at least once every week.
Now check Google’s blog for developers of the Home platform. Oh wait: You can’t. There isn’t one.
Instead, occasional Google Home news and information appears within the general Google Developer Blog. There is a Google Home product news section of Google’s main blog, but that’s not really for developers. Google does have a plethora of support and help pages for those who make Actions, but those are table stakes: Generating interest with more timely blog posts for developers would help.
Lastly, there’s one more key difference between the approaches of Google and Amazon here; I think it may the biggest factor in the variance of available Actions or Skills between the two. If you’re a developer, you can change for Amazon Alexa Skills, while I have yet to find any Google Assistant Skills with a fee.
As a developer who can choose between the two smart speaker platforms, what’s my incentive to build a skill? The one that might pay me for my effort, and right now that’s Amazon. I’m not suggesting that Amazon Alexa Skill developers are getting rich. In fact, I highly doubt any are. But at least they can get some tangible amount of currency for their work.
On the flipside, Google will provide you a T-Shirt, a Google Home device and a monthly $200 Google Cloud credit for one year if your Action meets certain criteria in terms of engagement. The device and credit are nice, but the shirt reminds me ones I’d get as a kid when someone went on vacation: “My dad went to Aruba and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!”. Only this time, substitute “I wrote a Google Assistant Skill…. “ for the first phrase.
I’m all in on Google Home at my house, with just a token Echo Dot for testing at this point, so it’s not as if I’m on Team Alexa. It just seems to me that as these two platforms continue to evolve, Google could help itself greatly by taking a cue from Amazon in smart speaker services.
Douglas Krug says
This is where having a hub in-between makes a lot of sense. You’ll probably never get exactly what you want from either on their own, but combine the two and you can make them do what you really want. This method needs a dash of Samsung cloud for now, but once Hubitat can share their sensor output with Echo, their will be no need for a third cloud integration.
Chris K says
Kevin, have you seen any details on usage/engagement for all of these skills? My anecdotal experience and the bit of actual research I’ve seen suggests that the vast majority of usage is limited to the handful of things you would expect (e.g. play music, set timers, get the weather, etc.). It seems like many of these skills are there just because it is easy to make them, not because they’re solving some real problem for consumers.
Relatedly, how many of these skills can thrive long-term without the ad revenue that has subsidized the smartphone app explosion?