Writing about how Gemini isn’t ready to replace Google Assistant on Android, I’m struck by a feeling of déjà vu. All the features Gemini needs to be a good phone assistant are already included by another Google product.
Generative AI pushes Google product development into high gear. I feel like we’re still at the beginning of this cycle, but I distinctly remember this happening once before. From around 2016 to 2020, Google was busy creating Assistant. As is the case today with Gemini, Assistant felt like the future and the number one priority given the breakneck pace of new features.
It’s easy to trivialize, but Google Assistant [U: helped drive] the creation of the smart speaker and display form factor, as well as Google’s entry into headphones. It launched on Android-powered phones, tablets, watches, TVs and cars, as well as Chromebooks and an email app.
At one point, “Google Assistant” was listed in the operating system section of the Pixel 3’s tech specs. Then there was Assistant Driving Mode and how Google Assistant replaced something that was previously the domain of Android.
Assistant really felt like the thing that connected all Google products. It was a unifying theme and gave a sense of coherence to the company. (If we zoom out, Google is at its best when there is a company-wide mandate. Some, like Google+/social and the Facebook lawsuit, ended miserably, but others, like the existential shift from desktop to mobile and Google Now, play a key role in differentiating the first Androids from the iPhone – have been successful.)
The Assistant push ended around 2021 and certainly by 2022. Various initiatives outside of Google Assistant’s core voice skill were shut down, including Driving Mode Dashboard, Snapshot, Memory (emerging) and third-party support.
The cynical interpretation is that Google is better at building than maintaining, as codified by its internal structure for quantifying performance and promotions.
A more charitable view is that Assistant has fundamentally reached the technological limits of what was possible in the early 2020s, before the arrival of Large Language Models (LLM).
That said, I’ve previously argued that Google in no way needs generative AI to become a good assistant, especially considering what made Google Now so promising. Google focusing and prioritizing what’s new is ultimately inconsistent with providing a good experience for products that already have hundreds of millions of users.
Anyway, that’s the past and we are now in the Age of Gemini:
Six: This has all happened before…
Baltar: But the question remains: does all this have to happen again?
Battlestar Galactica, but also Peter Pan (the film)
The optimistic view is that LLMs are capable enough to create a truly useful assistant and other intelligent features. Even if it doesn’t, work toward achieving artificial general intelligence (AGI) could keep Google focused and result in other fundamental innovations that can still lead to significant product developments.
I sure hope that Google now has a good foundation and will continue to iterate on Gemini rather than reboot in a destructive way every few years. It would truly be a new era.
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