Google Assistant: The smart person's guide

This comprehensive guide covers the history behind Google's AI-powered Google Assistant, its features, and what it means for the future of Google's business.

The next generation of computing, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, will be marked by a shift from "mobile-first to AI-first." For Google, that shift will be built upon its AI-powered intelligent assistant, Google Assistant. The launch of this software has implications for individual users, but it also signifies a new strategy by Google to connect many of its businesses together with a common thread.

To help smartphone users, AI fans, and enterprise decision-makers understand the features of Google Assistant, and why it matters, we've put together the most important details and resources in this smart person's guide. This is a "living" article that will be updated and refreshed as new, relevant information becomes public.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary (TL;DR)

What it is: Google Assistant is a conversational, voice-activated digital assistant created by Google that can perform actions on behalf of a user and provide contextual information.

Why it matters: Google Assistant is important because it is the linchpin in Google's AI-first strategy for the future, and will likely come to define how users interact with almost all of Google's core products.

Who does it affect: Consumers who are invested in the Google ecosystem will be affected by this, as will other smartphone manufacturers who may be prompted to create or acquire their own competing AI product.

When is this happening: Google Assistant was first unveiled at the 2016 Google I/O developer conference in May 2016, and it was first available on the Google Pixel phone on October 20, 2016. At the 2017 Google I/O conference, Google Assistant support for iPhone was announced.

How to take advantage of Google Assistant: Currently, Google Assistant is available on a few premium Android handsets, the iPhone, Google Home, Google's smart chat app Allo, Android TV, some Android Wear smartwatches, and certain cars with Android Auto integration.

What it is

Google Assistant is a voice-activated personal digital assistant, first introduced by Google at the 2016 I/O conference in California. Much like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, or Microsoft's Cortana, the Google Assistant provides contextual information and performs actions such as booking a restaurant reservation or sending a message on behalf of the user. Smartphone users can also type requests to Google Assistant if they don't want to use voice input.

To perform its functions, Google Assistant relies on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning to understand what the user is saying, and to make suggestions or act on that language input. Google Assistant is the foundational piece of Google's "AI-first" strategy that CEO Sundar Pichai discussed at a 2016 Made by Google event.

Before Google Assistant, Google created another digital assistant software known as Google Now. And, while Google Now is still in operation, there are some subtle differences between the two platforms. Google Now operates within an app available on Android or iOS, while Google Assistant is currently exclusive to certain products like Google Allo and certain smartphones. As CNET's Sarah Jacobsson Purewal pointed out, Google Assistant can perform all of the actions that Google Now can, but it is more conversational and uses a deeper level of AI.

The goal of Google Assistant, Pichai previously said, is to "build a personal Google for each and every user." Google Assistant will eventually be the connective tissue among all of Google's core software and hardware products.

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Why it matters

Google Assistant matters more for what it represents in terms of the future of Google's approach to consumer products than for what features it has or what it can do. As noted above, Google believes that, just as the tech world moved from web to mobile, the next stage in that evolution is to move from mobile to AI.

As hardware becomes more commoditized, smartphone manufacturers must compete on what they can provide through next-generation software and AI. Not only that, but they also must build out an ecosystem of products and devices that share access to this AI. Google Assistant is embedded in the Google Pixel phone, but it also works in its smart chat app, Allo, and is a key part of its smart home hub, Google Home.

Other companies are following a similar trajectory. Samsung recently purchased Viv Labs and plans on embedding conversational interfaces in its devices and home appliances. Microsoft put Cortana in the Xbox One, and Apple is integrating Siri into more of its products as well.

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Who does this affect?

The advent of Google Assistant, first and foremost, affects consumers in the Google ecosystem. Smartphone users who purchase a Pixel phone, or smart home fans who install a Google Home hub, will be able to use Google Assistant to stay more connected and automate many parts of their daily lives. A single Google Home with Google Assistant can recognize multiple users, provide proactive assistance, and offer hands-free phone calls. The Google Assistant can also push visual responses from a Google Home request to a user's smartphone or certain connected televisions and stream music.

However, being that Google Assistant is also available on the iPhone and in some Android Auto-enabled vehicles, the technology has a pretty broad reach.

Developers will also be affected by Google Assistant, as it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for AI-powered services. Google has also released a Google Assistant SDK, aimed at hardware vendors and developers who can use it to integrate Google Assistant into their products.

Other smart home product manufacturers will also be affected by Google Assistant, as it adds another major player to the market. Amazon Alexa, despite its strong lead with the Amazon Echo and Dot, is facing major competition in home automation from Google Home as the ecosystem continues to grow.

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When is this happening?

Google first announced Google Assistant in May 2016 at the 10th annual Google I/O developer event at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. In September 2016, one of the first previews of Google Assistant came with the launch of Google Allo, the smart messaging app.

The first phone that took advantage of Google Assistant, the Google Pixel phone, was unveiled on October 4, 2016. That same day it opened for preorders, and it arrived in stores on October 20, 2016.

Google Home, which also utilizes Google Assistant, became publicly available on November 4, 2016.

Google Assistant continues to updated regularly with new features and integrations.

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How to take advantage of Google Assistant

Users who want to take advantage of Google Assistant must purchase one of the products that offers it as a feature—Google Home, one of the various smartphones it supports, an Android Wear 2.0 smartwatch, an Android TV, an Android Auto vehicle with Assistant support, or the chat app Google Allo. Once a user has begun using it along with their Google account, it is important to use it often to improve the quality of information it provides.

Developers and businesses who wish to sign up to work with the embeddable SDK can get started here.

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Image: James Martin/CNET

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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