Are Google’s new features the future or are they just playing catch-up?

The search giant recently announced upgrades to Google Home, Assistant and Photos, and its upcoming Lens tool is the stuff of science fiction. Competitors such as Amazon and Samsung, however, may have got a head start

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2017, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 5:45pm

This month, Google has announced a lot of new features – several of which, it turns out, are already offered by rivals such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

These days, it’s not unusual to find tech giants and their plucky start-up rivals copying each other’s tools and features. Sometimes they improve on them; sometimes they’re just playing catch-up.

Here’s some of what Google has been talking up:

Google Home

Google added features to its internet-connected Home speaker, such as hands-free calling. That echoes Amazon’s Echo speaker, which was released earlier and so has had more time to acquire a wider range of abilities.

The new features announced will also enable the Home speaker to control and interact with a variety of Whirlpool and Jenn-Air appliances later this year. For instance, you can ask the digital assistant within Home to turn on the dishwasher or set the temperature on the oven. This is already available on the Echo and other devices that use Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

Google Lens

Google’s new Lens tool is the stuff of science fiction. It lets people point their camera at things to find out more information about them. So if you see a flower, you can point your camera at it to find out its name. (The same, sadly, cannot be said for strangers you meet in a bar yet, unless he or she is a celebrity you didn’t recognise.)

Samsung is trying some of that with its new Bixby Vision feature on its Galaxy S8 phones. Pinterest has a similar tool. Also called Lens, it lets people point their cameras at real-world items and find out where to buy them, or find similar things online. Take a selfie, and you’ll get similar hairstyle and make-up ideas (even if you aren’t wearing any make-up).

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Google Assistant

Google’s digital assistant is hoping to outsmart Siri on Apple’s iPhone. Google is releasing its voice-controlled assistant on a free app designed for the iPhone’s operating system – basically competing with Apple’s assistant on her own turf.

The move extends the potential reach of Google’s assistant, which debuted last fall on the company’s Pixel phone and Home speaker. Siri has come as a built-in service on iPhones since 2011; Google’s assistant will require an app download.

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Both assistants can be summoned with a press of a button to answer questions, manage schedules and handle other routine tasks. Google believes its assistant can get people what they want more quickly because it draws upon the knowledge that the company has accumulated while running the world’s most popular search engine.

Siri, though, might have something to say about that.

Google Photos

Google says new tools will encourage sharing of photos that you might have meant to share, but maybe forgot to do so.

Google Photos will be able to suggest which photos to share and whom to share them with – for example, if the person is in the photo. The company envisions a world in which amazing photos are no longer left on people’s phones because other pressing things in life got in the way.

Facebook has been trying to address this issue as well with its Moments app, which lets people share photos with friends and family privately, without posting them to a wider audience.