By Jack Nicas
Google doubled down on its bet on artificial intelligence with new features and availability for its virtual assistant and smart speaker at its annual software-developers conference, part of a scramble with other tech giants to dominate the next wave of consumer technology.
The new uses unveiled Wednesday touch on such popular Google functions as photos, email and mobile payments. They build on two products -- Google Assistant and Google Home -- announced at last year's conference. But there was also a nod to a new computing platform: virtual reality.
Tech is in the middle of "this important shift from a mobile-first to an AI-first world and we are driving it forward across all of our products and platforms," Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said at the conference in the company's hometown of Mountain View, Calif.
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., is trying to make its services even more ubiquitous by plugging the Google Assistant, its competitor of Apple Inc.'s Siri and Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa virtual assistants, into far more devices. Google said the Assistant will soon be available via an app on iPhones -- following a similar move by Amazon -- as well as a variety of other devices, including refrigerators, washing machines and toys.
Google also said it would soon add phone-call capabilities to its Google Home smart speakers. Users can call any phone number in the U.S. or Canada with the service, an advantage over a new Amazon.com Inc. smart speaker called the Echo Show that allows users to video chat only with other Echo Show devices or phones that have the associated app.
"I thought the Echo Show was good but this is even better," said Werner Goertz, Gartner's research director for personal technology. "The Echo can call Amazon fanatics, but with this you can call your mom, who may be tech agnostic."
Still, the Google Home already trails Amazon's Echo by a wide margin. Market research firm eMarketer estimated in May that Echo controls 70% of the smart-speaker market versus 24% for Google Home.
The pie is growing, though. EMarketer forecasts 35.6 million people in the U.S. will use a smart speaker this year, up 129% from 2016.
The use of virtual assistants, predominantly on smartphones, is far higher. EMarketer forecasts a 23% increase this year in the number of U.S. virtual-assistant users to 60.5 million, or about 27.5% of U.S. smartphone users. The market share of the various virtual assistants -- the Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana -- is unclear.
Google showed its enormous reach with some new statistics Wednesday, including there are now two billion active devices running its Android software, up from 1.4 billion in late 2015. Google also suggested it could soon add to its list of seven products that have more than one billion monthly users, including search, Gmail and Chrome, its web browser. Google said it has 800 million monthly users of its Google Drive online-storage service and 500 million of its Google Photos app.
"Those numbers remind me of how unmatched Google's scale is, especially given its lack of presence in China," Mr. Goertz said.
Facebook Inc. is closing in on two billion users on its main service and has more than one billion additional users on its WhatsApp messaging service, but no company has as many products as Google with such reach.
Google also said it would soon enable its Google Assistant to complete transactions, an opening for the service to make money, and to provide information about objects in the real world that are in view of a smartphone's camera.
Separately, Google announced a new stand-alone virtual-reality headset that doesn't require a computer or phone to function -- an entirely new product category in the emerging virtual-reality industry -- with the hope it can become a new hit. Virtual reality has had relatively slow adoption from consumers because computer-based systems can cost more than $1,000, while phone-based systems have lower quality that can make users queasy.
At last year's conference, Google unveiled a virtual-reality software platform called Daydream to help developers build better apps and experiences for phone-based virtual reality.
On Wednesday, Google said Daydream would now support stand-alone virtual-reality headsets, which use onboard sensors, computer chips and batteries instead of relying on outside phones or computers. Industry observers have described such headsets as the Holy Grail of virtual reality because they enable the high-quality experiences of computer-based systems with the mobility and lower costs of phone-based headsets.
Google said it was developing such a headset with Qualcomm Inc., and HTC Corp. and Lenovo Group Ltd. are building their own versions to work on Daydream.
Google also announced a new job-search feature in Google search, pulling data from hiring companies as well as existing job-search engines such as Monster Worldwide Inc. and LinkedIn, a unit of Microsoft.
The tool is the latest example of Google pushing into new online industries via its dominant search engine, including everything from news to travel bookings to music lyrics. And virtually every time it has added such a feature, the incumbent companies have resisted.
Job-search engine Indeed Inc. said Wednesday it was ready for the challenge from the tech giant.
"We are happy to see that 13 years after Indeed launched, Google has woken up to the fact that searching for jobs is one of the most important searches in anyone's life," Indeed President Chris Hyams said in a statement. "Our 5,000 employees wake up every morning and go to bed every night focused solely on helping people get jobs."
The announcement Wednesday that may be most apparent to Google users is the addition of "suggested" replies for the more than one billion global Gmail users. The technology, which has been offered in newer versions of Gmail, uses artificial intelligence to analyze emails and suggest short, appropriate replies.
Write to Jack Nicas at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 17, 2017 19:14 ET (23:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.