“Amazon is the accidental winner here,” said Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “Amazon got there first, which is superimpressive, and it has been a huge hit.”
Google is a leader in natural language processing — the ability to turn spoken words into terms that computers can digest — and its search engine is the starting point for how most people get answers on the internet. In fact, the company says 20 percent of Google searches on mobile phones are done by voice.
So why didn’t Google create an Echo-like device before Amazon?
In part, Google was hindered by a balkanized structure that prevented different groups within the company from working together, according to four current and former employees.
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., had a large team working on voice search but its focus was on an app for smartphones. The company had a separate team working on the Android operating system, which runs on smartphones, tablets and internet-connected home devices, and they were building virtual assistant technology into mobile devices.
Google bought Nest Labs, a manufacturer of internet-connected thermostats and smoke detectors, for $3.2 billion in 2014 as an entree into the home. But the unit seldom collaborated with the rest of the company. And other Google hardware divisions responsible for building smartphones, tablets, Chromebook computers, Wi-Fi routers and Chromecast devices to stream video were focused on updating products.
A competitor for the Echo, it seems, fell through the cracks.
This is not the first time Amazon has jumped ahead of Google, despite the search company’s considerable technological edge.
From its inception, Google has devoted enormous resources to operating efficient data centers to power its many services. But it was Amazon that identified an opportunity in renting out its technology infrastructure to companies in need of computing power, storage and data analysis. That business, called Amazon Web Services, is now on pace to generate more than $10 billion in revenue this year, while Google is playing catch-up.
A lack of focus can at times compound these issues. Google encourages its employees to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing new ideas beyond their usual responsibilities. Products like Gmail emerged from this policy, but it also fosters a mind-set that, according to one former employee, leads Google to chase too many ideas.
“Part of the problem is that it has a scattershot approach to things,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. When pursuing new ideas, he said, “they don’t always make big bets strategically.”
Google has spent seven years working on self-driving cars, for example, and it is still not clear how the company plans to cash in on its work. By contrast, Uber, which started as a company around the time that Google started work on autonomous vehicles, is already testing self-driving cars to pick up customers in Pittsburgh.
Despite its many successes, Google has a spotty history of creating devices. In 2012, Google introduced an internet-connected speaker called the Nexus Q. The vision was for the device to plug into a home entertainment system for streaming music or video, a sort of hybrid of an Apple TV and a Sonos speaker. But Google killed the product before it even started shipping it to consumers.
Also in 2012, Google bought the phone manufacturer Motorola for $12.5 billion. The next year, it introduced the Moto X, the first smartphone equipped with a listening chip so users could bring the phone to life by uttering the words “O.K. Google.” It has pushed this feature into the latest phones running its Android operating system. Apple’s more recent iPhones and iPads have a similar feature, activated by the words “Hey Siri.”
But what makes the Amazon Echo stand out is a technology called a far-field microphone that can make out someone’s voice from across a room, even when there is background clatter. And the Echo is always in position to listen for the so-called wake word — Alexa — whereas phones are often tucked away in pockets and bags. According to a former employee, Google has tinkered with far-field audio, but its focus was on the car, not a home device.
Amazon invested in artificial intelligence and speech technologies in the years before unveiling Echo, but its most crucial asset was its strength in the cloud computing market, which it dominates with Amazon Web Services, or A.W.S.
The vast majority of Echo’s intelligence is contained in A.W.S., and most of the apps that developers have built for Alexa run on the cloud service. “The most important architectural vision is that it’s all in the cloud,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services, said in an interview this year.
Amazon says tens of thousands of developers are creating skills for Alexa, more than 3,000 of which have been released so far. And thousands of developers are working to incorporate Alexa’s voice capabilities into their hardware products. Last month, GE Appliances announced an Alexa app that lets people preheat a connected oven with voice commands.
Chris Herbert, chief executive of a start-up called TrackR that makes wireless beacons for finding misplaced keys and wallets, recently released an app for Alexa that allows people to find their items with voice commands.
Mr. Herbert said he had looked at the voice offerings from both Google and Apple, but neither company yet offered the same range of capabilities as Amazon, because they viewed it as an add-on feature to phones as opposed to a stand-alone computer.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me,” he said.