In 2018 I wanted to buy a Google Home because I was working at ABC News on chatbots and figured immersing myself in the voice assistant hype would give me a better perspective on how to create for them.
Maybe I could write an app! Or at least understand better how they could fit into people's lives. I was never especially convinced of the broader applications, but it was cheap enough so I figured it couldn't hurt.
After buying a second for the bedroom and using it for a year and a half, I finally tipped over the edge and given up on the platform for good.
What's so good about Google Home?
Ultimately voice assistants have different use cases for everyone.
One of my friends uses an Alexa for music and managing the contents of their fridge. Another uses it to control home automation (and terrorize the cat).
Personally my main uses were checking the (variable Dutch) weather and asking about the time. The latter actually surprised me, it's super useful when you're in the shower or in the dead of night and don't want to open your eyes to look at a clock.
Turning my lights on and off mostly
— chendo (@chendo) August 10, 2019
The problem was that aside from turning on and off my lights, it really wasn't doing much for me. I'm not interested in radio, could never get podcasts working, and the news is easier to read online. On top of that, finding apps on Google Home is downright impossible.
I'd say outside of Google's main offering there were no killer apps. It's not a great ecosystem.
Then the bugs
From the get-go I couldn't use the full set of functionality because I have a Google Apps account rather than a plain old Google account.
For a while I could create calendar events, but that feature disappeared unceremoniously one day. I couldn't send messages, dictate emails, or receive notifications and there was no real integration with any major Google features. I'm not sure how much of this was due to my Apps account, and how much was just missing features in general.
But the thing that frustrated me the most was the reliability of the system. In the past few months it seems to have completely tanked.
At various points I've had the assistant light up and start listening for no reason at all, switch to another gender and accent, and more recently it stopped recognizing devices on my network like my TV and smart lights.
As an isolated event this was frustrating, but the frequency it was happening killed my faith in the system.
Setting alarms, weather updates, setting timers when cooking. Also telling it good night so it plays soothing sounds for me.
— Kelly (@kellyyyllek) August 10, 2019
Web & App Activity
One of the biggest sticking points for me was that for Google Assistant to work, you needed to enable Web & App Activity on your Google account.
This is an all-encompassing feature that logs all your interactions with Google, including searches. It's not just for your voice assistant.
I was initially hesitant to turn this on because it's super creepy having your Google searches stored in perpetuity, especially when dealing with sensitive or embarrassing topics. But I did it because I wanted the hardware assistant to, you know, actually work.
While you can delete Web & App Activity from the My Activity site, it was still kinda chilling and I started using a lot more tools like Duck Duck Go, more private windows, and Firefox Focus (a private browser for mobile which I highly recommend).
But last month after a period of Google Assistant constantly misunderstanding, getting things wrong, and at one point playing loud rock music instead of white noise in the middle of the night, I decided to turn off Web & App Activity and see what happened.
Adding things to my shopping list
— Jaap van Hardeveld (@JaapRood) August 10, 2019
Using Google Assistant without Web & App Activity enabled
Spoiler: not much changed when I turned off Web & App Activty, which surprised me a little.
When I first started using the device this was a mandatory feature, and it wouldn't work without it. But it seems they've some done work on making the hardware devices work without logging enabled.
That said, it wasn't perfect. I lost access to my third party integrations such as LIFX lights and Chromecast controls so it wasn't a complete solution and made the devices pretty useless beyond just the time and weather.
Turning lights on/off, playing music, setting timers. Trying to make it say funny shit…
— Jono 47 (@jono_hayward) August 10, 2019
After a few weeks of this, I decided Google Assistant was not worth the hassle and unplugged all my devices.
The news that Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon all have fairly lax privacy mechanisms in place around recordings certainly helped.
So my two Google Home Minis have been sitting on my bedside table for the past week and I'm not sure what to do now.
I like the idea of voice assistants and would consider getting another in the future, but right now the Google Assistant isn't very useful. I'm not a big fan of Amazon, and I hear Siri is pretty useless too so I don't hold out hope on things changing any time soon.
From my brief question on Twitter, it doesn't seem like many others are using them for much more than basic tasks. While race to the bottom in terms of price and smartphone ubiquity has contributed to these things being in everyone's homes, I genuinely wonder where the voice assistant revolution is heading from here.