The latest retro-style smart speakers from JBL are the first to house Google’s and Amazon’s voice assistants in one place for simultaneous use — something Sonos was never able to achieve.
Announced at the IFA tech show in Berlin this week, Harman’s new JBL Authentics 200 ($329.99), Authentics 500 ($699.99), and the portable Authentics 300 ($429.99) speakers come with both Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant on board. And for the first time on any smart speaker, you can invoke either assistant at any time. This means you can ask Alexa to play your “Sounds of the ’80s” playlist and then your roommate can ask Google to stop it.
Google and Amazon have a long history of not playing well together — there’s still no native YouTube app on Echo Show devices, and neither company’s music streaming service works on the other’s smart speakers. But the Cold War may be thawing. First, they’ve been working together on Matter, the new smart home standard. Now, they are bringing their voice assistants together in a way that should benefit users.
“[You] can ask either Alexa or Google Assistant to stop certain tasks — music that’s playing, a timer that’s going off, an alarm — and the activity will stop, regardless of which assistant actually initiated that activity,” Aaron Rubenson, vice president of Alexa at Amazon, told The Verge in an interview.
While the assistants aren’t linked to each other — you have to set them up separately using JBL’s app — they are “aware” of each other thanks to a Multi-Agent Experience (MAX) Toolkit that enables features like controlling each other’s timers and music and also knowing when to let the other one talk.
“[You] can ask either Alexa or Google Assistant to stop certain tasks — music that’s playing, a timer that’s going off, an alarm.”
“We enabled an audio focus software so that Alexa and Google Assistant would not speak over each other,” Marissa Chacko, director of product management for Google Assistant for Home, told me (in the same joint interview!). “If someone uses Google to start streaming music, and a timer goes off, set with Alexa, we let the music duck so the timer can be heard,” said Amazon’s Rubenson.
All of this means that if you live in a multi-assistant household, you don’t have to remember which assistant you or someone in your house asked to start something; either assistant can control it.
This also applies to smart home devices, although you still need to set up your lights, locks, etc. separately in each platform — making this only marginally different from what you can do today. I can already ask Alexa to turn on my Lutron lights in my living room and Google to turn them off. But I need two speakers in the room to do that. With the new JBL speakers, just one would suffice. However, an Echo Pop and a Nest Mini combined cost under $90, much less than the cheapest JBL offering.
I asked both Chacko and Rubenson if there were plans to bring the new multi-assistant capabilities to more (cheaper) speakers, perhaps even Amazon’s and Google’s own devices. They said that while there are no plans in place today, both companies are open to the idea.
“It was a very smooth experience working with Amazon,” Google’s Chacko said. “This is the first trial. We want to see how it goes and see if there’s a demand for it.” Rubenson agreed, saying the company is always open to talking to potential partners about opportunities “including for our own devices.” It recently launched a collaboration with Disney, which features a new Hey Disney! voice assistant inside Echo speakers.
Of course, this is also not the first time third-party speakers have offered a choice of voice assistants. Sonos speakers have offered a choice of Google or Alexa assistants for years and now has its own Sonos voice assistant. But you have to pick either Google or Alexa at setup and can’t switch between them without first diving into the settings menu of the Sonos app.
Why might you want both assistants? Beyond the fact that members of your household may have different preferences, each voice assistant has its strengths and weaknesses. Google is the best for general knowledge queries or adding things to your Google calendar, whereas Alexa has exclusive features such as tracking your Amazon package or listening to your Audible book. Having both on hand to answer your query makes a lot of sense.
As a third-party speaker, however, the JBLs lack some features of Google’s and Amazon’s hardware. According to Chacko, there are no Google calling functions on the speakers. Rubenson said they can do everything an Amazon Alexa third-party speaker can do — so no Alexa Guard features and no changing the wake word. But otherwise, “the speakers have feature parity with first-party devices,” said Rubenson. Chacko also said they worked really hard to reduce latency and that response time is on par with the first-party speakers.
According to both Amazon and Google, interoperability was the driving motivation behind this collaboration; allowing customers to be able to use either service more easily will hopefully mean more people use voice assistants overall.
Multiple personalities in one speaker will provide more utility
A year peppered with layoffs in the smart home divisions of both companies is a clear sign that they need to get more people using their voice assistants more often, and if that means working with their biggest competitor, so be it. “Hopefully [this partnership] can expand the audience for smart home … [so] everybody can do it because you don’t have to worry about everything working together,” said Chacko.
This is what Matter is supposed to offer. But as of now, smart speakers are not part of the Matter spec. A Google Nest hub can’t control an Alexa Echo or Apple HomePod speaker, even if they are all Matter compatible. That’s because they are Matter controllers, not Matter devices. “Clearly, there’s a vision where technologies like Matter may make it possible for multi-admin control of different [speakers],” said Rubenson. “But that’s not actually what we’re talking about here.”
While an omniscient voice assistant feels like a better user experience, I can see that’s a ways off. In the meantime, multiple personalities in one speaker will provide more utility. As an industry, however, that this partnership was required at all is disappointing since it isn’t working through Matter and is only on one (expensive) speaker brand. When the day comes that Google, Alexa, and, hey, even Siri, coexist on any smart speaker in your house and you can choose which one you want to summon at any moment, that will be true interoperability.