Voice assistants like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant have been steadily integrated into our tech, eager to help us with our everyday tasks and answering our trivial questions. They can now be found on watches, TVs, speakers and, of course, their birthplace: smartphones.
It’s always been relatively easy to activate the voice assistant on your smartphone: with a shortcut on your home screen, a long push of the home button or just saying their respective call phrase. But it seems that companies spending millions developing the AI helpers feel that’s still not convenient enough.
Samsung went for a dedicated button for its voice assistant, Bixby, straight from its introduction in 2017. The move was controversial as users were complaining about accidental presses and felt like Samsung is forcefully trying to make them use Bixby since the button wasn’t customizable. And while Samsung finally did allow one of the button’s functions to be remapped a few weeks ago, its convenience is still questionable.
It appears that Google was observing and taking notes about the pros and cons of the dedicated assistant button. And at the bottom of that list, it says: “We should have one for sure!” And now we do.
The rise of the Google Assistant button
If until now a dedicated Google Assistant button was a novelty, soon its presence will be almost as common as Android itself. About a month ago, Google announced that it’s partnering with several smartphone manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant button to more devices than ever.
The lineup is pretty strong: LG, Nokia, Xiaomi, Vivo and TCL (maker of Alcatel phones) have all agreed to add the button to their smartphones. LG (which actually had one on the G7) will have one on the G8 ThinQ, Nokia has announced the 4.2 and 3.2 that will both have it and Xiaomi’s latest flagship, the Mi 9, has one as well.
We know Samsung is missing from the party because of Bixby, but where’s Huawei? Well, rumor has it that China’s biggest phone maker is working on its own voice assistant to rival Google’s, which might be the reason why it’s not part of the merry company.
Still, thanks to the strong support coming from these companies, Google is estimating that about 100 million smartphones with a Google Assistant button will be shipped in 2019, a staggering number of devices.
So, how come so many phone makers are suddenly okay with adding a feature that’s purely benefiting another company? Well, let’s explore some theories!
Theory 1: Google is subsidizing phones that have the Google Assistant button
So far there’s been no information regarding any financial aspects of the deals made between Google and the phone manufacturers. However, considering the questionable advantages of the feature, it’s not far fetched to assume that Google is offering a little something to convince the companies to take that step.
That won’t be precedent either, Google is paying Apple billions of dollars to have its search engine as the default one in Safari and hundreds of millions to Mozilla for the same privilege on Firefox. So why not offer a small financial boost to partnered brands and in return get a deeper integration of its voice assistant, which in terms leads to more traffic to the search engine?
If we have to look for something common between the manufacturers that Google has partnered with, it’s that they’re all in a race to gain (or regain in LG’s case) market share. And a good way to do that is by offering more affordable devices. The LG G8 is rumored to cost around $750, which is a surprisingly low price for an LG flagship in 2019. Should we thank Google for that? Perhaps. We don’t have access to Google’s cost-benefit analysis for this project, but there’s definitely a monetary gain from having the dedicated hardware button. What part of the profit has Google agreed to share with the companies in question we’ll likely never know. Maybe the answer is “no part”, in which case…
Theory 2: Google is using its position as the Android developer to convince manufacturers
There’s positive reinforcement and there’s also negative reinforcement. If Google didn’t go with “we give you something and you give us something in return” then maybe it decided to use another tactic, for example: “if you don’t give us something, we might not give you something”. Again, we’re in the realm of speculation. But just as it’s not hard to imagine Google paying manufacturers for the addition of the Assistant button, it’s also plausible that it might have implied that adding it will definitely be a good choice *wink wink*.
Surely Google has plenty of leverage when it comes to Android. While Android is an open-source operating system, meaning it’s free to use, the Google apps people expect to have on their phones (Google Maps, Gmail, Play Store) are all licensed from Google. If you’re a phone maker without a license, your devices are basically unusable, unless you have viable alternatives for those products (which is the case in China). There are numerous other benefits of being on Google’s good side. Maybe Google pointing them out followed by “we also think the Google Assistant button would be a great addition to any smartphone” was enough for the manufacturers to get the hint.
This scenario is less likely as companies would have found a way to go public with Google’s shenanigans which of course would harm its image. Still, it’s one of the few theories that explain the sudden love for the Google Assistant button. But of course, there’s also a third option!
Theory 3: We’re all wrong and dedicated assistant buttons are actually awesome
As unbelievable as that sounds, we must consider all the possibilities! Sure, we hear a lot of complaints about the Bixby button getting in the way, and things probably aren’t much different when it comes to the GA button as well. However, this might be one of those cases where the vocal minority is twisting the public perception about an issue. What if for every person that dislikes the feature there are ten that like it?
Of course, we don’t have the data, but Google must have spent a lot of time and resources researching and analyzing the concept before it decided to go through with the mass integration. And when you think about, if the GA button does find its way into the hands of 100 million people this year, statistically speaking, even accidental presses are bound to make some people start using Google Assistant more often. After all, while for people following tech voice assistants have been a given for years, many users are still unfamiliar with the concept and don’t even know they have it on their phones.
Moreover, having the voice assistant complete tasks for you does feel in a way like you’re living in the future. Maybe with wider adoption, people will stop feeling so awkward talking to their phones and soon we’ll see the button as a convenience rather than an annoyance.
The dedicated button gives the voice assistant a physical representation, it makes it a part of the phone you can see and interact with, making it an integral part of your device. Now, with Google in the game as well, it’s also becoming a way to mark your territory. Bixby says “This phone is a Samsung first and an Android phone second!” while GA says “This phone is all about Android!”
It will be interesting to see where this rivalry will take us and if Huawei, now the world’s second largest manufacturer, will enter the scene with a capable voice assistant of its own. I’m guessing if that happens, it will come with a hardware button right off the bat.