Google Assistant Summary: What We Know and Don’t Know — Try for Yourself (Enable on Any Nougat ROM)!
Google’s October 4th event was the launchpad of the Pixel duo — devices that are meant to showcase Android and all that Google has added to it. The world, including us here at the XDA Office, were excited to see what new comes out of the hardware that was practically leaked in and out.
What surprised us, was how the event was not phone-centric, or even hardware-centric really. All announcements ultimately revolved around software and the future of Google’s services.
In hindsight, that makes sense. Google is a software company after all, a company that grew up in prominence by simply offering you meaningful information when you asked for it via Search. With how the Web and our ways of interaction with it are evolving, our consumption of information has become more personal and self-centric in nature. Google has realized the personal nature of this interaction, which is why Google Assistant, their virtual personal assistant, was the main highlight and focus of the entire event.
A personal assistant is not entirely a new concept for Google. Google’s first publicly available foray into providing somewhat of a personal assistant was with Google Now, back in 2012 with the release of Android 4.1. Google Now basically improved upon Voice Search by adding a personal touch. Over the years, Google improved upon Now to make it better at predicting which information you need and when you need it. Then came Now on Tap, which gave it elements of contextuality as the app could now analyze the contents displayed on your screen to give you more accurate results based on your situation.
Assistant is a tad bit different from whatever Google has attempted so far. It does combine functionality seen in previous virtual assistants that the company has experimented with, but it employs a more conversational approach to it. We’ve seen, and even reviewed, such conversational and contextual personal assistants before. With Google’s vast resources and data collection capabilities, an AI powered assistant really has potential to take off. But it also begs the question, what’s the catch?
Here, we will try and list the things that we do know about Google Assistant, and the things that we don’t, with a view to get a clearer picture if the Assistant ecosystem, that Google believes is the future, is worth investing into.
Where does one find and make use of Google Assistant?
Google Assistant is currently coming in three formats or mediums:
While Google Home and the Pixel are specific hardware devices that you need to purchase, you can try out a version of Assistant right now with Google’s rather underwhelming chat app, Allo. Assistant works slightly differently in each case, mainly differing on the input and output methods rather than its core functioning. Finally, you can actually get to try Assistant on any Android smartphone running Nougat with a simple build.prop tweak (either use an editor while rooted, use adb and mount /system with a custom recovery, or flash the ZIPs). Keep in mind that this currently offers extremely limited functionality.
Google Home and Assistant
With Google Home, you just talk to Assistant and instruct it to control the IoT elements in your house, do google searches for you and also control media playback on the various devices around your house. One of the goals here is to have the device act as a hub for home control and automation, and voice based commands and playback aid in hands-free control. The entire idea of Google Home is that it is always-on, therefore the way the user approaches it is different than what’s found on a phone, or within a specific phone app. While the phone variant of Assistant will be able to control IoT elements, Google Home is arguably more centered around such functionality.
Google Pixel and Assistant
With the Pixel and Pixel XL devices, the goals do change around. The Assistant implementation over here is basically an overhauled Google Now on Tap, trying to compete with Siri and Cortana. You can control your phone as well as do all the normal Google Searches that you were used to. You also get the advantages of contextual information recognition from Now on Tap, as the information displayed on your screen acts as a starting point for your Search. Interestingly, Assistant on Pixel also seems limited to voice input. The main strength of Assistant looks to be multiple-input queries or orders, as the AI is able to interpret the context of the conversation to allow you to make more natural requests.
Google Allo and Assistant
In Allo, Google Assistant interactions are primarily text based. Assistant here is limited to practically doing Google searches, as hardware control is beyond what is essentially a chatbot.
Google does mention that a unified Assistant experience is one of their aims for the future. But right now, Assistant does exist in three distinct forms, along with Google Now as well.
Here is a small preview of the commands with which you can use for Google Assistant on an Android device:
What happens to Google Now and Google Now on Tap?
Google has not officially mentioned what happens to Google Now now that Assistant is the cherished product. Since Assistant does have an element of pseudo-exclusivity to it at the moment, Google Now continues to be functional but the situation could change. Google did remove the mentions of Google Now from the Google App just a while back. In the future, it is likely that Google will shift focus entirely to Assistant and AI, at which point Google Now (as a separate app) will be merged into Assistant in favor of a unified experience.
What languages does Assistant support?
Since Assistant is conversational in its working, there is a limit on what it can understand and respond to. At the moment, Assistant is limited to English, while the Assistant functionality on Pixel devices does support German. More languages are coming soon, but Google has refrained from committing to a time frame.
Will Assistant be made available offline, for controlling actions related to hardware control?
There has been no commitment or announcement made on Google’s part to support offline commanding of Assistant. Offline support is important if Assistant is to become the hub of your home activities, and it would be ridiculous if you can’t have your front porch lights switched on just because your internet was flaky that night. That said, if your IoT devices are within the same WiFi network, internet connection might not be necessary.
As of now, Assistant inside Allo can receive (text) commands offline, but only responds when the device goes online. The unofficially Assistant on the OnePlus 3 can control basic phone hardware when offline. The extent of offline availability for Google Home remains unknown as of now.
Will Google Assistant be available to non-Google hardware?
Google Assistant, outside of the chatbot in Allo, will remain a Pixel-exclusive for the near future, sadly.
Assistant is not replacing Google Now in the Android 7.1 update, meaning that just a system update will not be enough to get Assistant on your phones (officially, at least) and it seems to be enabled server-side based on build.prop flags, as explained above. As Techcrunch notes from a Google spokesperson, Assistant is not going outside the announced hardware in the before the end of this year:
Our goal is to make the Google Assistant widely available to users, and we’ll continue to launch new surfaces over the course of the next year.
Restricting Assistant to specific hardware does not make sense from our perspective. An AI based virtual helper can keep benefiting from more and more users using it (and feeding it data to improve itself). Google has not mentioned that there are any hardware restrictions associated with Assistant that other modern smartphones do not possess. Google officially closing down Assistant to Pixel only surely helps sales of the Pixel, but that exclusivity only remained an advantage until an unofficial method to enable the service was found (more on this below), so the benefits do look limited. Opening up Assistant to all Android phones at least helps Google get more users on board and committed to the service, along with tying them to the Google ecosystem.
Of course, this is XDA Developers. It did not take long for Google Assistant to land “unofficially” on other devices. Turns out, all you need are two simple build.prop edits to enable Google Assistant, as long as you are on Android 7.0+ Nougat and have the Google App installed. Just add/edit these in your build.prop, set permissions, wipe Google App data/cache to reset it and you’re good to go:
ro.product.model=Pixel XL ro.opa.eligible_device=true
Google Assistant was hiding in plain sight for this long. As more and more devices receive Nougat in some form, Assistant (as it is currently) will work on non-Google hardware.
How does Google plan to monetize Google Assistant?
Outside of Allo, Google Assistant is tied in directly to the sale of hardware. So there does exist some sort of monetary incentive for Google to invest into Assistant. But as a company, Google also does undertake a lot of projects (and decisions) that do not have clear monetary paths (like Ara and how it was seemingly scrapped without a thought).
Google has not made public any plans to monetize Assistant yet. But they do have a few alternative routes that it can take on this end. Though whether Google actually does it or not, is a different question altogether.
The most obvious means of monetization would be through sponsored results for searches. But since these do not come up in Google Now which proactively displays information, it is unlikely to make its way onto Assistant which is more conversationally and contextually reactive (making it more difficult to make the result appear natural and not out-of-place).
Next method of monetization for Google could be to charge third party companies to integrate their services into the results for Google assistant. However, this method is also unlikely because Google itself has announced that they will launch the Actions on Google SDK for third party integration in December. This SDK will facilitate companies to build Action responses (Direct actions or conversation based actions) for Assistant-based interaction. Third party integration is crucial for Google to pitch Google Home as a worthy competitor against Amazon Alexa and hence, Google charging for the same is yet another unlikely scenario.
Privacy and Google Assistant
Google did not really touch on a lot of issues that surround Google Assistant and the aspects of privacy in its keynote event. Privacy is a crucial point for Assistant because of how the issue was handled out in Google Allo, where Google backpedaled on their earlier promise of storing messages only transiently and in an unidentifiable form and instead resorted to storing non-incognito messages indefinitely.
The support pages for Assistant do answer a few questions on the issue of privacy:
What information is shared with Assistant?
Google is vague and not-exhaustive about the information that Assistant can have access to. The information includes your name, your Google app version, your Google Account info and your Search history. However, the wording on the page does not imply that there is a limit to these areas only. You can also grant more information such as your device location and info on your device like Contacts, “Storage”, and Screen Content for a more “personalized” experience.
Does Google Assistant share or sell your information?
Google promises that the information collected by Assistant is not sold to anyone. If you are interacting with a third party, Google “will let you know” so that you are in control of the information you share.
How does Google Assistant treat conversation history?
Conversation history will be used to improve the usefulness of Google assistant and there are no specific mentions of the period of storage for this conversation history. All interactions with Google Assistant are also treated as search results for Google and hence these conversations will also be used for personalization of ads.
Can Google Assistant interactions be deleted?
Google Assistant activity can be deleted, thankfully. Google has put up support pages informing on how you can delete some or all of your Google Assistant interactions.
How are Assistant interactions with “always listening” hardware like Google Home handled?
Specifically with relation to Assistant on Google Home, Google mentioned that processing of audio only takes place after the detection of the “OK Google” hotword. The audio snippet is otherwise only stored locally and discarded, though they did not mention on how long this information was stored locally. Google Home also has a mute button, but you might as well power down the device whose job revolves around audio interactions.
Google’s plans with Google Assistant is certainly ambitious — they look forward to an AI-first future. Assistant is their first baby step towards this future. Even though Assistant might come across as limited in functionality to a lot of users, the scope of this service and the technology behind it make it a force to reckon with in the future.
Google does need to sort out a lot of issues with Assistant, right from making Assistant universally accessible officially, to improving language support, to addressing the various privacy concerns around it. And of course, they need to monetize the services in some manner in order to keep the project financially viable for the company in the long run, whilst still being supportive of the user and his experience. We certainly look forward to what Assistant becomes in the future.
What are your thoughts on Google Assistant? Do the issues with Assistant put you off, or do you think Google has nailed it for a first impression? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!