Google goes up against Amazon with voice-shopping for goods at Costco, Whole Foods, Raley’s, Target, Walgreens

In another sign of an escalating tech-sector movement to voice-operated computing, Google has burst onto Amazon’s turf with a new voice-shopping feature for the Google Home virtual-assistance device.

“What do you need to get done today?” wrote Google product managers David Wang and Larry Adams in a Feb. 16 blog post. “If picking up paper towels or stocking up on coffee is on your list, consider it done.”

Delivery is free, as is membership, through April 30. The voice-based process works through the company’s Google Express online shopping service, which requires a membership fee of $95 per year or $10 monthly.

Prices are set by merchants and are typically the same as in stores, according to Google. After April 30, access fees of 10 percent per item apply for Costco orders by non-members of Costco.

Participating retailers include Costco, Walgreens, Whole Foods, PetSmart, Staples, Fry’s Electronics, Target, Raley’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s.

Delivery options include same-day, overnight and two-day.

To order, users must undergo the minor humiliation of uttering the words, “OK, Google,” followed by, for example, “order paper towels.”

Google unveiled Google Home, with the Google Assistant virtual agent that lives within it, in October.

Amazon’s Echo virtual-assistance device, with assistant Alexa inside it, allows voice-based shopping through Amazon’s Prime membership-based online shopping service, which costs about the same as Google’s new service.

Google had faced an analyst’s question during a January financial-results conference call, about how to keep making advertising money as computing — and internet search — moves from keyboards and screens into voice-based interactions with screenless devices such as Home. Company CEO Sundar Pichai responded that it was “very early days” in this new wave of computing, but that, “We expect voice to work from many different contexts. We are thinking about it across phones, homes, TVs, cars.”

Google’s leap into voice shopping shows another path to monetizing services based on the spoken word — and one that’s less complex than making money from voice-based search results delivered by devices without screens.

Voice-based computing has evolved at a lightning pace in recent years as advances in artificial intelligence have enabled computers to better understand human speech.

Voice-computing evangelist Brian Roemmele has predicted 50 percent of our interactions with computers will take place via voice a decade from now.

And this year, wrote Greylock Partners venture capitalist Sarah Guo in a blog post, “is the year voice becomes a mainstream ‘operating system,’ as we attain ‘good enough’ speech recognition; as voice-enabled hardware gets deployed in volume; and as an ecosystem of companies begins to build in earnest on the big voice platforms (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, and in China — Baidu).”


Photo: Screen display of Google’s Home device at Google’s I/O developer conference in May 2016 in Mountain View, California, before release of the device. (Troy Wolverton/Bay Area News Group)


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