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article imageGoogle unveils its take on Amazon's Alexa skills

By James Walker     Dec 9, 2016 in Technology
Google has expanded its Google Assistant developer program to include every app creator as opposed to just private beta testers. It will expand the number of services compatible with Assistant as the company prepares to take on market leader Amazon.
Google launched Assistant with its smart wireless speaker Google Home in October. Home is created to rival the Amazon Echo and Alexa, Amazon's digital assistant. The Echo's success has been driven in no small part by its strong integration with third-party services. From today, developers can bring their apps to Google Home too, enabling Google to start playing catch-up to Amazon.
Google is calling third-party integrations "conversation actions." Actions are combined together to create conversations that allow the user to have back-and-forth dialogue with the Assistant. Apps can be activated through the "OK Google" hot word. Google provided two examples of what's possible from a 1960s AI exercise, "OK Google, talk to Number Genie" and "OK Google, talk to Eliza," but the true possibilities have been left for developers to explore.
The system has one key advantage over Alexa. Unlike Amazon's AI, Google Home users won't need to enable "skills" before saying a command. You'll be able to use any conversation action as soon as it's added to Google Home. Google plans to tightly control the platform in the early stages but details remain scant on exactly what is on the way.
The company has said it's looking to create deeper integrations between apps and services. It also plans to bring the new Assistant capabilities to its chat interface on smartphones. Support for purchases and bookings are on the way too. These features are currently being tested with a preview audience.
To get an app registered with the Assistant, developers need to apply for their own "OK Google" command trigger. It's similar to applying for a web address in the early days of the Internet, Jason Douglas, the leader of the new platform, told Bloomberg.
Developers should register early to make sure they get their chosen trigger. Once reserved, users can interact with the service by saying the command. It's this simplicity, combined with Google's vast knowledge graph, that the company hopes will slow Amazon's increasing dominance of smart home products.
Google recognised there are challenges ahead, particularly around introducing users to new commands. Much like when the web began, people will need to discover for themselves new phrases to say to the bots. The company could end up creating a search engine to help people find new commands to say.
The initial launch is already promising though, providing a concerted answer to Alexa that avoids one of the major shortcomings of Amazon's platform. By eradicating the skill installation phase, Google Home is more versatile and immediate. It can interact with any supporting service at a moment's notice.
"Today is just the start, and we're excited to see what you build for the Google Assistant," Google said to developers today. "We'll continue to add more platform capabilities over time, including the ability to make your integrations available across the various Assistant surfaces like Pixel phones and Google Allo."
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