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Google vies with partners as digital helpers crowd Mobile World Congress

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Mobile World Congress, the premier wireless-technology conference in Barcelona, was supposed to be a coming out party for Google's digital assistant.

[SAN FRANCISCO] Mobile World Congress, the premier wireless-technology conference in Barcelona, was supposed to be a coming out party for Google's digital assistant. But at this year's proceedings, the artificially intelligent voice-based service struggled to be heard above the din of an army of rival assistants that will soon jostle for attention on smartphones.

As the event kicked off Sunday, the search giant announced the Google Assistant would ship on all new phones running its popular Android operating system. The same day, Motorola said its latest Android phones would come with Inc's Alexa voice-based helper, Google's nemesis.

Executives at Motorola parent Lenovo Group Ltd explained later that consumers who buy the latest Motorola phones can use both Alexa and Google's assistant.

Soon, they'll even have a third option: the Chinese manufacturer plans to roll out its own AI-powered service on its devices this year.

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"I don't really believe in the supremacy of one assistant," Lenovo Vice President of Product Dan Dery said in an interview, describing the plan as "bringing AI to hardware".

Google's version represents one of the company's biggest bets since it began building a novel web search engine in 1998. It wants to remain the main source of digital information as people talk to their computers more, rather than type.

That will require its assistant to be on as many gadgets as possible. But Google's hardware partners are also betting voice-based computing could be the next big thing, rivaling the mobile boom.

VoiceLabs estimates 24.5 million voice-based devices will ship this year in the US, up from 6.5 million in 2016. Amazon leads, while Google is trying to catch up quickly.

There's also a rush to deploy AI techniques, resulting in a Mobile World Congress awash in digital helpers. South Korea's SK Telecom Co displayed "Nugu", an internet-connected speaker akin to Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo. Deutsche Telekom AG had "Tinka", a customer service chat bot. 

Last month, HTC Corp introduced Sense Companion, a personal companion service with voice-recognition, on its newest Android phone. Even, a hip hop star-turned-tech-entrepreneur, is working on an assistant. When a reporter asked for a demonstration at the conference, the service struggled to follow commands. 

Aside from Apple Inc, smartphone makers have largely failed to wring profit from software-based services and lessen their dependence on hardware businesses beset by shrinking margins.

Samsung Electronics Co built its own mobile operating system, with little success, and Samsung Pay vies for mobile purchases with Google's Android Pay on many smartphones. Samsung is trying again with assistants. In the fall, it acquired Viv Labs, a startup formed by the creators of Apple's Siri assistant, and is expected to release a digital helper with its newest phone in March.

Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer denied these efforts undercut Google's assistant. 

"A lot of (original equipment manufacturers) will choose to do that because they see value in assistants," he said in Barcelona.

"Competition is good." 

Privately, other Google employees said they are less concerned that hardware or telecom companies will build a better digital assistant. Google's search engine provides ready answers to millions of questions for its voice-based service, and the company has thousands of skilled engineers working on the project - resources that these other firms may struggle to match.

A larger concern is Amazon. The e-commerce giant has built a network of software development partners for Alexa, a service that, like Amazon's flagship online shopping service, could dent Google's core business of finding and delivering information.

If Alexa is on a lot of Android phones, alongside the Google Assistant, which service will answer when people ask their devices valuable questions like which nearby restaurant to book or what holiday gifts to buy?

In January, Amazon announced it was bringing the service to Huawei Technologies Inc. phones sold outside of China. Then came Lenovo at MWC.

The story of the Chinese company's Motorola division is a painfully familiar tale for anyone involved in Android. While it's the most popular software for running phones, Android manufacturers have struggled to make money on hardware, while Google scoops up billions of dollars from mobile services and related ads flowing through the devices. 

Lenovo bought the Motorola hardware business from Google in 2014 and the integration has been tough: in the third quarter, Lenovo reported a US$112 million loss from its mobile division, compared with US$30 million a year earlier. Mr Dery, a former Motorola Vice President who returned to the brand in July, is tasked with breathing new life into the business.  Digital assistants are key to his plan.

Lenovo's coming voice-based service will rely on a personal identifier attached to all users of its hardware, allowing it to work consistently across Lenovo phones, tablets, desktop and laptop computers, said Mr Dery.

Mr Dery described this as a supplement to the assistants from Amazon and Google. While those two services mostly respond to queries and commands, Lenovo's will send notifications and alerts based on predictions about users' behaviour and needs, according to the executive.

"We don't like to call it an assistant because it's misleading in a way," he said. "This is something which is always aware, in the background, syncing for you." 

By Mr Dery's telling, Amazon was quite pleased to hear about his broader AI strategy.

 "We shared that whole plan with Amazon and they realised, 'Wow, this is exactly the missing piece for putting Alexa in everyone's pocket,'" he said.

Google wasn't upset by the move either, he insisted.

"They know our plan as well," Mr Dery said.

Still, the more digital assistants get crammed into devices, the more crowding for Google.