In writing about how Gemini is not ready to replace Google Assistant on Android, I’m struck by déjà vu. All the features that Gemini needs to be a good phone assistant is something that another Google product already figured out.
Generative AI is pushing Google product development into overdrive. It feels like we’re still at the start of that cycle, but I distinctly remember this happening once before. From 2016 to around 2020, Google was busy building Assistant. Like it does today with Gemini, Assistant felt like the future and number one priority given the frenzied pace of new capabilities.
It’s easy to trivialize, but Google Assistant drove the creation of the smart speaker and display form factor, as well as Google’s entry into headphones. It launched on phones, tablets, watches, TVs, and cars running Android, as well as Chromebooks and a messaging app.
At one point, “Google Assistant” was listed in the operating system section of the Pixel 3 tech specs. Then there was Assistant Driving Mode and how Google Assistant was replacing something that was previously under the domain of Android.
Assistant truly felt like the thing that connected all Google products. It was a unifying theme and it made the company feel coherent. (If we zoom out, Google is at its best when there’s a company-wide mandate. Some like Google+/social and chasing Facebook ended miserably, but others – like the existential shift from desktop to mobile and Google Now playing a key role in differentiating early Android from the iPhone – were successful.)
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