Behind the Gadget Hype, Amazon and Google Are at War

The flash of the CES technology show in Las Vegas was all about robots, drones, and smart gadgets. But its subtext was all about Google versus Amazon.

Both companies usually shun conventions like CES, preferring to debut gadgets at their own press events. But these tech giants have built an imposing presence here this year as they work to weave their voice-operated digital assistants more deeply into our personal lives.

Google has plastered digital billboards and the Las Vegas Monorail with the "Hey Google" wake-up command. It's announced a range of new gadgets featuring its assistant on everything from smart displays to pressure cookers. And it's sent out the clowns -- a jumpsuit-wearing army of advertising associates wearing brightly-colored Converse sneakers and hovering around partner firms' booths to explain how Google's technology works.

Amazon, which grabbed an early lead in this market, opted for a more subtle approach. Instead of an advertising blitz, its Alexa digital assistant has merely been popping up regularly in "smart" products across the convention -- everything from mirrors and toilets to headphones and car dashboards.

Executives from both companies have also been turning up at press conferences held by other companies such as Panasonic, LG and Toyota. "What we're seeing is heavy competition between all the personal assistants," says Gartner analyst Brian Blau.

The Stakes

The two companies -- and to a lesser extent, Apple, with Siri, and Microsoft, with Cortana -- are waging a fierce struggle to establish their assistants as de facto standards for a new generation of voice-controlled devices. It's similar in some respects to the decade-old battle between the iPhone and Google's Android system in smartphones, or to the much older fight between Apple's Mac computers and Microsoft's Windows PCs.

Both companies see the competition in existential terms. Getting shut out of voice devices could imperil Google's lucrative...

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