Tapping a few buttons on your phone is out, and digital voice assistants are in. Amazon has raked in the cash and the accolades from selling a device called the Echo, a cylindrical speaker that can also control your media and smart home apps. Google reportedly wants a piece of that action, with the company developing a competing device known as the “Chirp.”
Re/code claims to have spoken with “several sources,” who say that a Google team is hard at work on the Chirp. While it’s not clear exactly how the Chirp will differ from the Echo, Re/code suggests that the new device may physically resemble Google’s flowerpot-shaped OnHub router. It will probably also have a speaker; it will almost definitely have a mic.
Released last year, the OnHub router already has a built-in speaker. That's an unusual feature for a router, causing some people to speculate on what it could be used for — streaming music, an in-house intercom, or perhaps the kind of voice controls Google may be dreaming up for the Chirp. A version of OnHub built by Asus already supports gesture controls for prioritizing which devices in your home should get faster Wi-Fi speeds.
As for Chirp, look for Google to make use of its Google Now voice assistant, much like Amazon uses Alexa to help users input commands. Google Now has long been a part of Android and Android TV devices, and while it’s not as full of personality as something like a Siri, Cortana or Alexa, it is one of the most comprehensive and sensible voice assistants on the market.
One thing reports about Chirp haven't really touched on is how Google's device might differ from Alexa. By most accounts, Google's Now is a bit more robust than Alexa, and Google Play has access to a wider variety of apps than Amazon's app store. Otherwise, the two devices sound extremely similar, and a choice between the two may come down to simple brand preference.
If that's the case, Amazon may not be sweating over reports of Chirp's development, given Alexa's first-to-market advantage and its extensive support for other products. Still, the strength of Google Now, the Android ecosystem and Google's own growing stable of hardware — besides the OnHub router, Google also offers Chromecasts for streaming video and music as well as its lineup of phone and tablets — give Chirp a way to catch up rapidly on Alexa.
"Amazon's Echo has opened up a new space for ambient computing, and it's hard to imagine Google not wanting to participate strongly in this area," Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis, told us. "If search goes verbal, Google absolutely has to be there."
Don’t expect to see the Chirp in the immediate future, however. While Google holds its I/O developers conference next week, Chirp looks unlikely to make an appearance; Re/code’s sources suggest that the device itself may launch closer to the end of the year. Those who watch the I/O conference may notice a special interest in digital voice assistant technology, however, which may feed into the eventual Chirp.
Until Google offers more concrete signs that it's working on such a product, it’s best to take the Chirp’s existence and eventual release date with a grain of salt. Still, Google and Amazon have been competing in everything else, from tablets to streaming video, so a personal assistant cylinder would hardly be unprecedented. We may know for sure before the year is out.