February 26, 2017 / 1:58 PM / 6 months ago

Google's digital assistant comes to new Android phones

A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses in this photo illustration taken in Brussels May 30, 2014.Francois Lenoir/File Photo

(Reuters) - Alphabet Inc’s Google announced on Sunday that it will bring its digital assistant to smartphones running the latest versions of its Android operating system, vastly expanding its reach.

The Google Assistant was limited to the technology company's own products when it was released last fall, but it has steadily been expanding to a broader range of devices.

Smartphones running Android accounted for 85 percent of the global market last year, according to tech research firm IDC, compared to 15 percent for Apple Inc’s iOS.

The Google Assistant will roll out this week to English speakers in the United States with phones running Android 7.0 Nougat and Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the company said.

English speakers in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom will gain access to the assistant next, followed by German speakers in Germany, and the company is working on support for additional languages.

Voice-powered digital assistants have been largely a novelty for consumers since Apple's Siri introduced the technology to the masses in 2011. But many in the industry believe the technology will soon become one of the main ways users interact with devices, and Apple, Google and Amazon.com Inc are racing to present their assistants to as many people as possible.

“Our goal is to make the Assistant available anywhere you need it,” Gummi Hafsteinsson, product lead for the Google Assistant, wrote in a blog post published on Sunday. “With this update, hundreds of millions of Android users will now be able to try out the Google Assistant.”

Companies ranging from appliance maker Whirlpool Corp to Ford Motor Co announced products featuring Amazon’s Alexa assistant at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, leading some analysts to conclude the online retailer had gained an early lead over Google.

What is more, Android manufacturer Huawei Technologies Co announced it would support Alexa, highlighting the cost of Google’s decision to feature the assistant on its own hardware before opening it up to partners, said analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research.

“Clearly Google needs to move forward because their battle in the future is not going to be over the operating system, it’s going to be about assistant platforms,” said analyst Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research.

Google cannot trust that its assistant will be the default on all devices in the Android ecosystem. Leading manufacturer Samsung Electronics has announced plans for an assistant, and other companies are reportedly working on the technology.

“Some big manufacturers have decided to go their own way,” Dawson said. “But a lot of manufacturers simply can’t afford to develop their own.”

Reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Bill Rigby

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