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Over on cnet, their writer David Priest Molly Price went through the differences between the hardware, software, and privacy issues that have been defining moments for some of the big tech players.

2019 won’t go down in the annals as the year that revolutionized smart home tech, yet Amazon and Google went to lengths to bulk out the product offerings, get the software right, and tidy up the messes that came with the old guard of smart home gadgets. Smart homes powered by Amazon and Google have entered their teenage years; Google Assistant and Alexa will be using your credit card and driving your car, quite literally, in the near future. 

Which of the two adolescents is going for full burnout and which is heading to the Ivy League and financial independence? We’re not claiming to look that far ahead, but the records of this last year could be a good barometer of who ends up where.

Molly Price and David Priest, journalists who specialize in covering Google and Amazon, have had a chat about who came out top of class in 2019.

Hardware

I think Amazon pretty handily won 2019 when it comes to hardware. The online megaretailer rounded out its lineup of smart speakers and displays, giving customers small, medium and large options for both categories. And while some of the new devices feel like minor iterations on past products (like the Dot with Clock), others are really good additions that blow Google’s direct competitors out of the water. For instance, the premium-sounding Echo Studio received a much stronger review from us than last year’s Google Home Max, and it costs less, too.

David Priest

Google certainly didn’t release the menagerie of products Amazon did this year, but it still brought some significant new devices to market. We saw a redesigned (and better sounding) Nest Mini, a second generation of its mesh router system, Nest Wifi, and a new Nest Hub Max smart display. That gives Google Assistant users their choice of two nice-size Google smart displays, not to mention Google Assistant-enabled options from Lenovo like the Lenovo Smart Clock. 

That said, Google really only gave us one brand new product this year (the Nest Hub Max), while Amazon delivered the Show 8, Show 5, Echo Flex, Echo Studio and more. But more isn’t always better. Amazon’s avalanche of Alexa in every shape and size of smart thing might be too complicated a lineup for some consumers.

Molly Price

Google definitely has some strong products, but just looking at the selection of recent Echo speakers and displays, I still think Amazon gets the nod for 2019’s hardware.

David Priest

Winner: Amazon

Image credit: Alina Bradford/CNET

Software

All right, let’s talk software and smart-home integration. Google attempted to unify the Nest and Google brands this year by shutting down the Works with Nest program and flipping the switch on Works with Google Assistant. It did not go well. Users who made the irreversible change weren’t happy to realize that they couldn’t connect with popular third-party services like IFTTT any longer, which left Google scrambling to clean up the mess. 

Works with Assistant woes aside, Google did add features like free YouTube music (there’s no hope for YouTube on any Amazon devices), continued conversation so you don’t have to constantly say “Hey, Google” and celebrity voices, too (hi there, John Legend).

Molly Price

Google’s smart home switch-over didn’t go well, but I do have to commend Google for trying to lay the foundation for a better future smart home platform in Works with Assistant. And software is still Google’s greatest strength. Amazon is closing the gap, but Google Assistant is still much more naturalistic than Alexa, and the Nest Hub’s smart display interface is still more responsive and intuitive than the Echo Show’s.

Aside from including Zigbee support in the $230 Show and the $150 Echo Plus, Amazon isn’t doing much to support the expanding market of smart home devices. Sure, Alexa’s open API better equips companies to work with its ecosystem than Google’s more restrictive approach — but smart home success in 2019 is about preparing for the future. And Google seems poised to build a more holistic vision for the smart home moving forward, given the variety of popular tools the company offers (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Search, Nest, YouTube, etc.).

David Priest

While there are thousands of devices that work with each of these brands, Google is building a future-focused platform and thoughtfully improving it with each update and integration. Nest smart display interfaces are more intuitive than ever, and it’s really those small details like easier light bulb controls that make life simpler for humans living in a smart home. 

Molly Price

Winner: Google

Google’s Rick Osterloh discusses user privacy at the company’s event in New York.
Sarah Tew / CNET

Privacy

When it comes to privacy, neither Google nor Amazon are shining examples, and neither restricts human review of your voice recordings unless you explicitly opt out. Apple, by contrast, protects your recordings by default. As for device privacy, Amazon was wise to include physical shutters on its latest camera-equipped smart displays — a feature that doesn’t require users to just trust the company, the way the digital kill switch on Google’s face-tracking Nest Hub Max does.  

David Priest

We’re definitely seeing companies market themselves as more privacy-focused right now. The Nest Hub Max shows a green light, for example, any time it records audio, video or photos. Amazon was smart to implement a physical camera shutter, but let’s not forget that Amazon also owns Ring — the video doorbell brand that has come under fire for sharing user locations with police departments and patenting unethical facial-recognition tech. 

But honestly, this category doesn’t really have any clear “winner.” Tech giants have so consistently demonstrated a willingness to jeopardize user privacy for the sake of profit that we can only name a biggest loser.

Molly Price

True, and I think that loser is, by a small margin, is Google. While Amazon profits off selling targeted ads based on user purchase data, the bulk of the company’s revenue still comes from sales on the website. By contrast, Google is fundamentally dependent on access to data — whether that’s by letting companies read your private emails on Gmail, or by gathering private health data on millions of people. The lesson here, though, is that you shouldn’t trust any tech companies to have your best interest at heart. Put covers on your cameras, opt out of voice data collection and read the fine print, regardless of whether you buy Google or Amazon products. 

David Priest

Loser: Google (but really, all the people whose data it’s monetizing.)

Who do you think came out on top in 2019? Both Google and Amazon have some serious muscle when it comes to their digital assistant offering. Google has studiously spent the last year getting ready for the future, whilst Amazon has continued to bring out devices that are consistent and strong, plus they’re just about on the right side of moral when it comes to privacy concerns.

Winner: Amazon

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