First experiences with Google Home (in Australia)

The Google Home was made available in Australia late last week. I had wondered to myself a few times which device I would get – Amazon Alexa or Google Home. The fact that the Home is now available in Australia and the Alexa is nowhere to be seen (let’s not even mention Cortana at this point) made the choice for me. For those in the USA who have already had this technology available for quite some time – feel free to stop reading any further.

While I’ve only used the device for less than a day and a half there have been a lot of learnings. Just a quick re-cap of our technology setup:

  • Both my wife and I have Android phones
  • Our entertainment system centres around an Xbox One
  • We did have Chromecast devices throughout the house, but found that the initial connection lag from Spotify was too long so I replaced them with mixture of Sonos speakers
  • Our personal email accounts are in Office 365, and our workplace technologies also centre around Microsoft

So what have we found in the first day and a half of usage?

The first thing to figure out was where to place the device. I only purchased one, so I needed to put it in the area where we spend the most amount of time. Thinking about this I opted for the kitchen as that is the central zone of the house.

Integration with apps and devices

Audio devices

My first bugbear is that there is no Sonos integration. The Google Home can only command Chromecast devices – which doesn’t help me as all of mine are packed away. So the first of our #firstworldproblems is the choice: do we talk to the Google Home and tell it what music we want to play, resulting in it only playing through the single Home device? Or do we make the big effort to walk over to our phone, load Spotify, and tell it to play through the Sonos speakers? Ultimately the decision will come down to whether we are playing music for the kids or ourselves and want it to pipe throughout the house, or whether we are in the kitchen and would favour a hands-free experience.

What’s slightly annoying here is that Google Play Music integrates with Sonos, so I can play music from Google’s service through the Sonos speakers – I just can’t tell the Home to do it for me.

Video devices

For video at this point the Google Home only integrates with Netflix and Stan. This is not really a loss to me as there is no Chromecast plugged into the TV anyway. I invested in making the Xbox One the centre of our entertainment experience with accessories like the TV antenna, media remote, and any number of apps with content – such as Netflix. We also use Plex for a portion of our media on the Xbox, so for now I use the Kinect on the Xbox to turn it on and load the apps I want. It would be nice if the Google Home does support Plex at some stage, as the Amazon Alexa has this “skill” now.

Calendar

Another challenge we found was that the Google Home wasn’t able to tell us anything to do with our calendar (eg. “what have I got on tomorrow?”) as it only works with Google Calendar. And as my wife and I use Office 365 in our personal lives – our Google Calendar is empty. I have managed to find a workaround for that (more on that later in this post).

Other Google features

The Google Assistant running on the Home is also different to the Google Assistant that runs on Android – so you’re not able to ask the Google Home to send a text message or make a phone call for you. Those features are available in the US but not here.

A benefit of the Amazon Alexa is that you can add things to the shopping list by asking it, and then Amazon will deliver them. As we have neither Amazon nor the Alexa in Australia this is a moot point for us. However my wife and I have centred our task and shopping lists in the Wunderlist app (now owned by Microsoft). As you can imagine there is no integration, however it seems that within Google’s own services there is no integration with its apps. Google has a shopping list functionality that the Home can integrate with, however the only other way to access it is via the web. Alternatively Google has a Keep app which provides notes and lists, effectively a lightweight mix between Wunderlist and OneNote. It would make sense for the Google Home to integrate with this as we could at least access it on our phones instead of having to browse to the shopping list page.

Other points of note

  • I’ve found that the Google Home can’t tell us about TV listings, nor is it able to set reminders – the latter being the most annoying. Since 2014 I have used Cortana, Siri and now Google Assistant to set reminders from my voice. These two restrictions may be limited to Australia which wouldn’t surprise me.
  • We found that we needed to ask our kids to be quiet before talking to the Google Home, as our two daughters are often speaking and we found this to interfere with what the Home could understand.
  • Make sure you have ample bandwidth available when using the Home. When I had some downloads chewing up the bandwidth we found that the Google Home wasn’t able to answer most questions, and Spotify playback would pause several times during a single song. Even when I capped the download speeds this didn’t seem to be enough. This makes sense, as the Google Home needs to be fast to respond – otherwise it doesn’t offer much benefit over using your phone.
  • I had to disable the “OK Google” detection on my phone as I found that its ears would prick up whenever I said that command to the Home as both devices were in the same room at the same time. While the Home does allow you to say “Hey Google” as well as “OK Google”, I didn’t want to have to remember that the former was for the Home and the latter was for my phone.
  • You can’t seem to ask it questions about your spouse. This could be due to privacy, or it could be because it honestly doesn’t know the connection to other people. Questions from my wife on “tell me Loryan’s first appointment tomorrow” resulted in the Home apologising that it didn’t know how to answer that question, yet me asking “what is my first appointment tomorrow” directly afterwards resulted in an immediate answer.
  • Interactions end immediately after the Google Home responds, regardless of whether it was successful or not. This impacts the use in two ways:
    • If it can’t answer or complete the request, you have to start again – right from “OK Google…”. There is no option to re-explain yourself or phrase it a different way without starting again.
    • If you need further refinement or clarity on an answer you have to start the whole thing again. For example, asking what the weather is tomorrow will give an answer, but it would be nice to be able to ask “and what about the day after?”.

Reading all the above you’d thing I don’t like the Google Home or am unhappy with it – but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s simply a case of the negatives presenting themselves so quickly as we discover how to work with it.

One particular aspect I enjoyed was that often when delivering an answer the Google Assistant would send more information and a web link to the Home app on the device of the user asking the question.

I intend to keep a diary of the usefulness of this device and how to make it fit in my world both from a practical standpoint, and also due to the fact that a big portion of my digital experiences are outside of Google. I also have no home automation technology, so won’t be using the Home to turn off room lights any time soon.

Google Home Diary

Day 1 (Saturday 22/07):

  • Brought the Google Home home.
  • Set it up in the home office, asked it some basic questions like the weather and issued some basic commands such as asking to play specific songs, albums or artists. So far so good.
  • Moved the Home into the kitchen, had to decide if it would replace the Sonos PLAY:1 (on top of a shelving unit), sit next to it or somewhere else in the kitchen. Opted to put it on the bench so we could see the lights in order to know if it’s listening to us or not.
  • Set it up for the wife while deflecting the “do I have to?” facial expression. Showed her how to play some songs. She immediately found it didn’t do exactly what she specified, resulting in a “how much did this cost?” facial expression.

Day 2

  • Asked more questions such as language and measurement conversions (eg. temperature).
  • Started working through the features listing to get more familiar with what we can ask.
  • Discovered the ability for it to tell jokes, also specifically kids jokes.
  • Found that the Google Home can do a coin flip for you – complete with sound effects.
  • Had 5yo daughter’s friend come over (whose father had also purchased a Google Home but he had the flu so didn’t attend). Using Google Allo he and I did converse (he’s the only person I use that app with) – they use a Chromecast for the TV so he found additional benefit there.
  • Asked it to translate an expletive from English to Russian – was not disappointed.
  • 5yo daughter enjoyed asking the Home various questions and getting answers. 3yo got frustrated as she can’t speak concisely enough to be understood yet.
  • Asked it to tell me the news headlines – it delivered a very monotone text-to-speech conversion from The Australian news headlines. I stopped it after 15 seconds due to rapid onset of “tune-out-itis”.
  • Set up Microsoft Flow to sync new events from both my personal and work calendars (both in Office 365) to my Google Calendar (link to the template), so now when I ask what I have on it can actually tell me.
  • Wife and I had several bouts asking all kinds of crazy questions – a role reversal given our kids ask us all kinds of questions that don’t make sense all day.

As the device lives in our kitchen it will surely become part of our lives. Future steps will be for me to get Microsoft Flow to sync events from my Google Calendar to my personal calendar in Office 365, and to find further use cases in a daily life beyond bad kids jokes.

Stay tuned as I’ll be posting a diary of my experiences with the Google Home and the use cases it works well with.

Why I don’t use Outlook on my Android phone

Based on my previous articles about my journey from Windows Phone to Outlook, you would think that I use every Microsoft app available on my Android device.

This assumption is largely correct as I use the Arrow app launcher, OneDrive for photo uploads, Yammer for social engagement, Skype for Business for conferences, and plenty of others.

But the one app I don’t use it Outlook. I did use it on my first Android phone and cursed something that I thought was an Android limitation – but it turns out it is an Outlook on Android limitation, and for me that is a showstopper:

The ability to create new and modify existing contacts!

Yep, that is a feature I simply cannot live without. At first it was infuriating as I was relatively new to Android, but as I was using the Gmail app for my personal email experience (which is also hosted on Office 365) I found that the issue was actually Outlook. It was quite frustrating to figure out – I would create or modify a contact on my phone in the Outlook app, only to find seconds later it wasn’t there!!!

As a person who is constantly meeting new people I need the ability to save contact details, and they come from a variety of sources: a business card handed to me, an email signature, told verbally, my incoming call log, etc. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m back in front of my Outlook client on my Surface Pro 4 to record their details, or have to use the Outlook on the web interface – I want to do it then and there. And I don’t think I’m being unreasonable.

In fact if you look at the UserVoice page you’ll see that this specific feature has over 20,000 votes and was been flagged as “Under Review” back in July 2015.

We are left to wonder why this hasn’t been fixed yet?

So what do I use instead of Outlook?

I did use the Gmail app for my personal Office 365 email and it was acceptable, but I had a few sync issues there so definitely wouldn’t use it for work purposes.

Instead, a friend of mine who worked with me at Paradyne, Ian Culliver, told me about an app that he uses instead of Outlook. He had switched from Windows Phone to Android years ago and so had a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. When griping about the Outlook contact experience he told me that he uses an app called Nine Mail. It is available for a 2 week trial, and after that costs US$9.99. This is fairly steep compared to the free Outlook app, but then again it’s the same cost as lunch.

Two things about this app caught my attention. The first was the ability to add & modify contacts!

The second was the ability to set VIPs, which allows me to disable all email notifications (something I love to do) and only receive them from important people such as my wife and specific business contacts. (What’s surprising is that the Microsoft Band v1 handled VIP email notifications over 2 years ago!)

These two are enough for me to stay on Nine Mail for a while.

I still have the Outlook app installed and synchronising in the background as the Skype for Business client requires it to get calendar information. All notifications are turned off however, and the Outlook app isn’t even on my main screen.

As you can see on the screenshot of my phone, the Nine app is in the bottom right corner with the Nine calendar widget featuring prominently.

The Outlook app is buried inside the “Microsoft Apps” folder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But what about the rest of the features? And what do I recommend to customers?

Good question – do I practice what I preach? Do I tell customers to use what I use?

Yes and no. I tell them what I use, but then I tell them to use the supported app being Outlook. I tell them to use the app that has the most features for the enterprise, including integration with features such as Office 365 Groups. Things like Focused Inbox are an important feature for those who work in organisations that still receive large volumes of emails each day.

Also, the Outlook app does introduce new features at an amazing rate – although I’m still surprised saving contacts is still not fixed.

On a personal level, I don’t use those features as I’m in a business of one and for me contact management is more important than group collaboration.

Will I go back to using Outlook? Probably yes, at least for my work persona. But not until this contact problem is fixed, and probably not until VIPs email notifications is introduced.