Google's mobile strategy isn't in the phone — it's in the freebie

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Another year, another new top-of-the-line smartphone from Google, Apple, Samsung and many others. And anyone who buys into Google's ecosystem this year gets a little something extra that could pave the way for a big assault on Amazon.

Google Home Mini, the search giant's $49 answer to Amazon's Echo Dot, is available for free to people who preorder the new Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 smartphones. Google's smart speaker strategy has lagged that of Amazon, but it's not shy about taking a page from Amazon's playbook in one key regard: Turning a product into a Trojan Horse for a new sales channel.

Amazon's lineup of Echo devices is increasingly diverse, but they all connect to Amazon's Alexa assistant and, by extension, the Amazon store. The company uses sales events such as its annual Prime Day to not only get more Echo devices into consumers' hands at a discount, but also to get them using those devices to make purchases.
Google isn't marketing its smart speaker as a commerce channel just yet. But Google is making great strides on every other step the search company needs to make towards this goal. Giving away its speaker to Pixel devotees isn't just about getting these devices into homes; it's about getting them to the users most likely to favor Google over Amazon.

The original Pixel phones came out last year with an emphasis on the voice-controlled Google Assistant, and the Pixel 2 furthers this with new ways to access the Assistant and incorporate Lens, a Google visual machine-learning system tied into the phone's camera. The big accessory for the Pixel 2 is a set of smart earbuds that integrate so well into the Google ecosystem that they can be used to translate spoken languages in real time (the company demonstrated a slow but coherent conversation in English and Swedish on stage Wednesday).

The company's trade-in program for first-generation Pixel phones is also fairly generous, making it more likely that Google Pixel's early adopters will trade up to the new model, getting a Home Mini in the process. The sales pitch is that Google's device is smarter than Echo, able to discern which family member is asking a question and then deliver a personalized response. For example, two working spouses would get different answers to questions like "How's my commute?" and "When is my first meeting today?"

Google didn't describe this as a security mechanism, but it suggested that the technology is smart enough to handle sensitive calendar items such as a doctor's appointment with more tact.

Thus, it's not hard to imagine this voice recognition system evolving into a form of voice authentication. Security ranks as a top concern for people who own an Echo device but don't use it for payments, according to data from BI Intelligence. If Google can convince people its Home Mini is smart enough to distinguish between relatives by voice — a tall order, given that such systems are known to have issues with "evil twins" — then it may leap ahead of Amazon in building the most trusted channel for voice-controlled commerce.

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