Should brands be concerned by Google’s focus on AI?

Google used its annual I/O developer conference to lay out how it will move beyond the smartphone into artificial intelligence, messaging and virtual reality but what it didn’t do was explain the position brands will hold in this new future, raising concerns they could end up “making a deal with the devil”.

Google Home is a voice-activated device that can answer specific questions or offer tailored local information

New products and services unveiled at the event included Google Home, a voice-controlled device that lets users ask questions or receive tailored local information such as traffic or weather, as well as a new messaging app dubbed Allo and a video chat service, Duo.

Google hopes it can outsmart rivals with Google Assistant a chat bot that learns more about users as they use it via machine learning, AI and natural language processing. For example, if someone asks ‘Who built this’ and they are standing next to St Paul’s Cathedral, Google will understand you are asking about the building and answer ‘Sir Christopher Wren’.

“We want users to have an ongoing two-way dialogue with Google,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at the event last night (18 May).

“We think of it as building each user their own individual Google.”

Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google

Daydream, meanwhile, is Google’s next big push into virtual reality. The software will let third parties including developers and brands build apps that can run on a variety of VR headsets. Google is betting VR will take off in the same way mobile did and is mimicking its strategy – building an operating system that it hopes will become the de facto VR software as Android is for the smartphone.

Ilicco Elia, head of mobile at DigitasLBi, says Googles recent moves prove “we are no longer in a smartphone-only world”.

“It’s no coincidence that Google Assistant is at the core of the newly announced Google Home. It heralds the shift from the simple search query to a longer two-way dialogue, enriched by context,” he explains.

“The platform, be it Android or the Chrome browser, has become a commodity. App technology has moved into the optimise space, with the key announcements being deeper integration, improved tooling, better discovery and ever increasing performance.”

google allo
Google’s new messaging app ‘Allo’ features the Google assistant, which can, for example, recommend nearby Italian restaurants if you talk about booking dinner

Google is not the first company to make big bets on AI, VR or messaging. Amazon already has the Amazon Echo, a rival to home, while Microsoft and Facebook are betting big on the VR, the latter with its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Oculus Rift. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft also all have their own personal assistants.

Yet questions remain over the role that brands will play in this new future. Will they be able to engage with their consumers on Google Home? Are there advertising or customer service opportunities with Allo. As Julie Ask, an analyst at Forrester, points out, despite Google launching Allo with brands including UBer, OpenTable and GrubHub it will now sit between brands and their customers.

“Brands need to pay attention to the mobile ecosystem. They can no longer rely on owning mobile moments – or engaging consumers just in their own apps and mobile websites. They need to think very hard about their strategies to borrow mobile moments from key players in the ecosystem like Google which have deep understanding and context around their consumers and own the mobile moment,” she explains.

Questions also remain around data exchange and Google’s business model. Will it be based on advertising or want brands to pay for access?

“Brands need to move forward but they also need to go into these relationships with their eyes wide open. They won’t yet know if they are making a deal with devil.”

Julie Ask, analyst, Forrester

“Few, including Google, have revealed how they will monetise these new services beyond the obvious harvesting of more data, context or consumer understanding and consolidating their hold on consumers’ time,” she concludes.

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