VC Sizes Up Google As Consumer Electronics Challenger To Apple Et Al.

Xconomy San Francisco — 

It’s the end of the year, and everyone’s getting out their crystal balls.

At the Silicon Valley venture capital firm NEA, partner Greg Papadopoulos has a prediction about Google. But it’s so positive that he makes a joking disclaimer at the beginning of our conversation.

“I’m not a Google fan boy,” Papadopoulos insists.

A veteran executive at Sun Microsystems and engineer for HP and Honeywell before he became a VC, Papadopoulos (pictured) sees a big opening for search and software giant Google to challenge the likes of Apple, Samsung, and Amazon and become a “consumer electronics powerhouse.”

That’s not just because of the big recent stumble by Samsung, whose Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones were prone to catching fire, or what Papadopoulos sees as a slower pace of significant innovations in Apple’s iPhones. He says Google has the edge because it’s “the leader in artificial intelligence.”

Papadopoulos says that makers of smartphones, cameras, digital assistants, 21st century cars, and other devices need to succeed on three fronts: they need to be connected, they need to be intelligent, and they need to take advantage of the computing power and data storage available from Web-based services (the cloud). Consumers have come to expect devices to detect their environments and anticipate their needs, he says.

“If something isn’t connected, it’s broken,’’ Papadopoulos says, summarizing the consumer’s take. “If my device doesn’t have any intelligence in it, it’s stupid.’’

This is the holiday shopping season that may help prove Papadopoulos’s point. TV ads are trying to enchant consumers with the idea that they can speak their search queries and other commands to the AI “smart assistants” that power connected-home hub Amazon Echo and its new competitor, Google Home.

These units are sort of a cross between a tabletop hi-fi speaker and a talking robot servant. They play your music on command, answer questions in a soothing voice, and relay your spoken orders to your thermostat and other household devices. Google Assistant is the natural language processing AI inside Google Home, and it’s also an element of the company’s smartphone, Pixel, whose price is in the same neighborhood as higher-end iPhone models.

Consumers have been familiar with voice recognition assistants since at least 2011, when Apple introduced Siri in its iPhone 4s. But the connected-home hubs take this verbal relationship with tech into a new hands-free dimension. No need to even pick up a device—-users just talk to the microphones in the tabletop units. Apple is rumored to be working on a similar hub, as is Microsoft, whose voice recognition assistant Cortana is a feature of its Windows software.

“Apple is investing so fiercely in AI right now,” Papadopoulos says. But he still thinks Google Home will “blow past anything Apple or Amazon does.”

(In addition to his Google fan boy disclaimer, Papadopoulous also offered some disclosures: He says neither he nor NEA have invested in Google, though NEA’s portfolio includes consumer electronics companies such as smartwatch maker Olio, and Sentons, which develops touch interfaces for smartphones and tablets. Papadopoulos says his daughter has worked at Google on user experience assignments for less than two years.)

One recent review comparing the two smart home hubs already on the market, Amazon Echo and Google Home, lends some support to Papadopoulos’s view of Google’s superior skills in AI. Tech journalist Swapnil Bhartiya, writing in the publication CIO, found that Google Home could quickly handle conversations in context and answer questions accurately. Bhartiya says Amazon Echo’s voice recognition AI, Alexa, sometimes failed to understand questions, and seemed to steer users toward buying something from Amazon through the device.

Comparisons can be difficult with these products, though, because they’re designed to perform better as they get to know the voices and the life patterns of their users.

The possible effortlessness of the connected-home life, where users speak their commands rather than typing them, will also depend on the size of a hub’s network—-how many other devices and Web services such as streaming video and shopping sites the hub’s smart assistant can control. Conceivably, one command such as “Romantic dinner” could dim the lights, queue up a music playlist, and schedule delivery of a shrimp risotto feast with arugula walnut salad.

Another recent review also pegs Google Home as the most useful product for now, “with a wide range of commands, tasks and integrations with various services,” a reporting team at ITPRO wrote. But the team also pointed to the potential of Amazon’s … Next Page »

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