On Thursday, the Alphabet Inc. unit launched a system for developers to build chatbots that work with Google Assistant, its voice-based virtual helper. The tools, called Conversation Actions, will let companies and other third parties interact with Google users by building bots that answer questions and, eventually, sell and book things through voice controls.
Developers can seek approval for phrases that come after "Ok, Google" (the words that summon that Assistant) to launch the interactive bots. So, in the future if someone says, "Ok, Google, talk to Target," a chatbot for the retailer might appear and help the person buy things through a conversation, for example. They will even be able to choose among four different voices, two male and two female.
Jason Douglas, the Googler overseeing the new developer platform, compared it to applying for a web address in the early days of the internet. "This is the ability to immediately, on the fly -- instead of loading a site -- engage a user in a conversation," he said. "We're trying to make it as seamless and natural for users to go direct to developers."
Many large technology companies, including Amazon, Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc., are investing heavily in digital assistants that use artificial intelligence techniques to interact with humans more naturally. For Google, the investment is more crucial: Its Assistant is the strategic centerpiece of an effort to keep its lucrative web search business relevant in an age of mobile devices and wearable gadgets. Just like its search engine sent people to the right places on the web, the company's assistant should connect users to the most relevant and useful services.
The initiative is still in its infancy. Douglas said the company hasn't worked out how people will discover what phrases to utter to summon the correct chatbots. And a business model is likely years away. At first, the developer function will only work with Google Home, the company's new voice-activated speaker. It will come next to Google's Pixel smartphones and its messaging app Allo, and will soon add support for features like purchases and bookings, Google said, without specifying a date. The company has also said a richer software developer kit is coming for the service early next year.
Douglas stressed that the strategy for integrating services is different than standard operations for mobile apps and the desktop web. "It's a conversational experience," he said. "It's a pretty new ecosystem."
Not entirely new. Amazon has rolled out a similar feature with Alexa, its own virtual assistant, called skills, which links to external apps and services. Alexa works primarily with Amazon's Echo speakers, which compete with Google Home. Thus far, Amazon has created more than 5,000 skills with partners ranging from Domino's Pizza to ride-hailing service Uber.
Douglas said Google's Conversation Actions are different from Amazon's approach. Rather than picking and setting up skills manually, as Echo owners do, Google imagines its users conjuring any use case with a verbal command -- as long as a developer has built it and claimed the relevant phrase.
Alexa skills are "kind of like an installation," Douglas added. "With Google Home, you don't have to do anything prior."
Adding more functions to its Assistant is critical for Google's ability to broaden sales of Google Home, which had a warm reception from reviewers, but is two years behind Amazon's Echo. While Amazon has opened Echo to a range of other services, it has primarily used the device to drive purchases on Amazon.com. Those purchases come without web searches online.