Once upon a time, Google was absolutely gaga over Google Assistant.
Remember those days? You should. They really weren’t that long ago.
Back as recently as 2020 — in the last year the annual Consumer Electronics Show was held in person before going digital during the peak of the pandemic — Google did everything in its power to make sure Assistant was everywhere you looked, both virtually and in a very literal physical sense. Assistant turned into a full-fledged spectacle at the high-profile tech exhibition that year, continuing a theme Google had been threading for a while.
As The Verge put it two years earlier, in 2018:
Google has basically taken over the entirety of Las Vegas with ads and billboards highlighting the Google Assistant. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city this week without seeing a giant Google advertisement.
And you know what? That manner of extreme attention-seeking made an awful lot of sense. After its slightly awkward 2016 debut, Assistant quickly became the nucleus around which everything else at Google seemed to rotate. It felt like the beginning of the « post-OS era, » as one particularly comely columnist contended a couple years into Assistant’s existence, with clear signaling that « getting partners and users on board with Google Assistant in as many ways as possible » was Google’s « core focus moving forward » — a way to keep the company’s almighty search force front and center and to create a « next-gen version of that classic Google search box » in a way that’d remain relevant no matter what type of device or method of interaction you were using.
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In the past several months, though, something has shifted. Following years of aggressive promotion and impressive enhancements, Google’s affection for Assistant seems to have faded.
After receiving report after report from frustrated Android device owners who were finding Assistant to be a barely functional shell of its former self, I decided to dig a little deeper to see if I could figure out what in the world was happening — and why.
Update: Shortly after this story was written, new information surfaced about this very subject. Keep reading…
The Google Assistant (d)evolution
By most counts, Google’s Assistant backslide seemed to start somewhere in the early part of this year — around the same time the company announced its focus on developing a ChatGPT-like natural language search interface known as Bard.
According to reports around that same period, Google made a deliberate move to « reshuffle » its Assistant division and shift its focus primarily toward Bard development. Leading up to that, as Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo recollected, Assistant’s once breakneck pace of releases had slowed considerably. Instead of launching new Assistant features, Google started taking features away. And other reports indicated the company was planning to « invest less » in developing Assistant for products « not made by Google » itself.
Even once-high-profile Assistant features that were exclusive to Google’s own gadgets seemed to start fading over time. In 2019, for instance, Google orchestrated a splashy debut for its « new » version of Assistant on Android — a faster, more capable virtual assistant that launched on that year’s Pixel 4 and was promised to make its way to the broader Android ecosystem within the next year.
Best I can tell, that broader rollout never seemed to happen. And even on Pixel phones that technically still support the « new » Assistant, many of the advanced options excitedly shown off a few short years ago simply no longer work.
That brings us to the broader trend around Assistant right now. It’s not only the apparent lack of focus, emphasis, and ongoing investment internally around the service; it’s an apparent deterioration of the existing functions that made Assistant worth relying on.
In short, people seem to be experiencing vexing problems with Assistant failing to understand even their most basic commands and then properly execute ’em — in what certainly seems to be a marked difference from the service’s performance and reliability a mere handful of months back.
The topic recently came up as a conversation within my Android Intelligence Platinum Community, and I was blown away by the number of people expressing similar sorts of Assistant letdown experiences.
For instance: One person named Ken said he was « noticing much longer response time, » and many times, he wouldn’t get an answer from Assistant at all.
Another community member, Jaxon, elaborated further:
The Assistant is getting worse. … I have six home devices and my personal (albeit anecdotal) evidence is overwhelming:
- I ask to set a timer; it tells me it’s started a third timer. I ask about the other two timers, and it tells me there’s only one timer set
- I ask it to turn out a light, and it tells me the light doesn’t exist
- I ask it to broadcast a message, [and] it immediately broadcasts “a message” to all devices
- I ask it to adjust a temp, [and] I get “there was a glitch” or “I can’t reach your home device right now”
Not all of this happens daily, but some of it happens almost daily. I just use the Home app now. No more voice commands.
MikeW’s experiences line up almost exactly:
I use the Assistant primarily within Android Auto, for navigation, messaging, and music. It used to seem almost flawless to me in spite of my strong Southern accent. But within the past few months, I have noticed the following:
- Slower response times, including pausing for several seconds in the middle of reading a text
- Just stops working in the middle of doing something. It just quits and doesn’t return for a very long time or not at all during that drive
- Misunderstands words that it used to recognize
And the delightfully monikered DaveThePlatypus summed his issues up thusly:
For us, the Assistant devices (all Google, no Lenovo or other third-party [products]) have become just about useless. We use Keep for lists and notes, and one out of three requests like “add milk to the grocery list” returns “I didn’t find a list called grocery — want me to make one?” If you reply « yes, » you get a second, independent list named grocery.
Then there’s reminders (and yes, I know they’ve migrated to Tasks). Ask the Assistant to remind me at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow to take out the trash, and every time it is a gamble as to what you will get. Sometimes it is repeatedly asking when to remind. Others, [it] gives you unintentionally hilarious reminders (my wife made Jell-O shots for our community pool party, and when she asked it to remind her to take the shots before we left, the reminder came out “Shoot Jell-O at the pool”).
Now, any tech product is bound to have its share of sporadic hiccups. But the reports around Assistant just plain not working like it used to have started to become staggering — and staggeringly consistent, too. I’ve seen ’em in our forums, I’ve heard ’em over email, and I’ve seen ’em all around assorted social media sites, too.
Reddit in particular has been littered with comments echoing those mentioned above. The Assistant-specific subreddit where much of the discussion has occurred is currently set to be private, unfortunately, but you can find cached copies of the conversations quite easily. And they all revolve around these same troubling themes.
It’s gotten so bad that the crew over at Chrome Unboxed suggested Assistant appears to be « quiet-quitting » and flat-out giving up:
The virtual assistant has gone from world class to dumber than a box of rocks. It consistently fails to respond, toggle lights, performs completely unrelated actions, and more. It’s just so bad that I can hardly express my distaste for what it’s become.
Combined with those reports about Google shifting the Assistant team’s focus toward Bard — and, y’know, Google’s general tendency to abandon projects at the drop of a dime — all of this is fueling some increasing speculation that in one way or another, Assistant’s days could be numbered.
Now, look: I tend to be a pretty skeptical guy. I generally hesitate to buy into hype, and I’d rather search for sensible explanations and nuanced possibilities before assuming any more extreme theory might be accurate.
So with all the smoke and all the unexplained oddities around Assistant right now, I decided to do the only logical thing in a scenario like this: I reached out directly to Google to ask what’s up. I candidly explained what I was seeing and asked if there might be any rational justification for what was happening and when it would be addressed — and/or any broad assurances Google could provide that Assistant wasn’t, in fact, going anywhere.
And the answer I got back — well, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.
Searching for Assistant answers
In my inquiry to Google, I was very upfront about all the same info I just mentioned and the unmistakable sense of folks all over the internet assuming the service’s days were numbered.
As I said in my initial email to the company’s media support team: « I’d love to be able to provide any context or explanations you can share to help color this narrative and bring some actual facts into the discussion — and even assurances about the actual state of Assistant’s development, if appropriate. »
After a very pleasant phone call and a couple weeks of cordial emailing, a spokesperson sent me the following statement:
We are committed to building a high quality, conversational Assistant to help people get things done, whether they’re at home, in the car, or on the go. We always listen to feedback and move quickly to identify a solution whenever we find an issue. Ensuring a delightful user experience is a top priority and something we’re deeply focused on continually improving. We measure our progress rigorously and quality bars have continued to improve over time as we’ve added more advanced language understanding capabilities.
That, my friend, is what we in the business call a « non-statement. » It artfully dodges all of my specific questions and fails to provide any meaningful answers about the issues I raised.
I politely pressed a bit further, asking if there was anything at all that could be said specifically about why so many people seem to be experiencing the issues around Assistant reliability and effectiveness and if/when those issues might be resolved — and/or anything that could be said directly to address the speculation that Assistant might be on its way out of actively prioritized development, at least in its current form. I made clear that my aim was to supplement the rapidly spreading speculation with actual factual info, if any such info existed and could be provided.
And then…crickets. My last email was sent a week ago, last Wednesday. As of this moment, I’ve not heard anything back.
It isn’t exactly a reassuring response, to say the very least. And it doesn’t do much to calm the well-reasoned doubts around Assistant’s long-term fate.
It may well be that Google isn’t intending to eliminate the Assistant brand entirely but rather to replace the current version of Assistant with one that’s powered primarily by a more Bard-based brain. That’d certainly line up with the current trajectory and everything we’ve been seeing. Or, who knows? Maybe Google itself doesn’t even fully know what the future of Assistant might hold.
At this point, frankly, your guess is as good as mine. But Google’s ongoing silence around the specific questions here — questions that should, by all counts, be quite easy to answer — sure seem to speak volumes.
And for a product that Google’s worked so hard for so long to get us all in the habit of using, that’s a damn shame to see.
The full update: Well, how’s this for timely? A matter of days after all the communication detailed in this article, word broke that Google had apparently sent an internal email revealing upcoming changes to its Assistant strategy. According to the leaked email, as published by the website Axios, Google is reorganizing the teams responsible for Assistant and working to revamp the service to revolve around a more Bard-like chatbot-style system.
So, yeah: That might explain some things, eh?
Hey, Google: A little public communication around this would go a long way — as would a teensy bit of effort to keep the current version of Assistant your customers rely on running smoothly as you begin to think about the service’s next iteration.
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