When extra features are added to cell phones or the Internet, they’re called “apps” — short for “applications.” Maps and games are examples. When features are added to the new fast-growing digital assistants like Amazon Echo, they’re called “skills;” but when added to Google Home, they’re called “actions.”
Why the difference? We don’t know, and we didn’t make this stuff up. You have to realize that dozens of meetings, attended by high-powered executives, are required to make such decisions. We weren’t invited. Well these gizmos are the fastest growing products on the planet, just ahead of organic carrot juice. And so we looked at what “actions” Google can take.
Users of either device most often ask for weather or music. But what about more difficult questions, like: “Tell me about Tokelau.” This is an island in the middle of the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, and we are always anxious for news. Currently, there’s not much happening on Tokelau and so there’s no news. But other interesting actions are popping up all the time. Here are some we’ve tried so far.
— “Quora.” This is our favorite question and answer site. There are more than 100 million active daily users and they can provide answers to really obscure questions. For instance, we asked Google Home to launch Quora, and then asked: “What is the best way to lower cholesterol for a blood test?” Google said the best answer was from Joy Schwabach, who has answered lots of questions on Quora and has 140,000 views. This turns out to be the same Joy Schwabach whose name is on our column. (How many could there be.) The answer she gave is rather lengthy and somewhat boring, so we won’t go into it. We might note that no one pays for this information.
— “Random Conversations.” This enormously useful “action” allows you to say just about anything and someone out there in the great beyond will say something back. For example, a stranger asked us what we did when lonely or bored. We had much to say on this subject, but unfortunately we cut her off accidentally.
— “Lonely Planet” – You mention an area of the world you’re interested in, like Italy, and get news of attractions. A follow-up email gives you more detail on whichever one you want to know about. We learned about the Museum of San Marco in Florence.
— “Cool Events” tells you about meetups and shows in your area. Unfortunately, the first one they told us about had already started an hour earlier. Ah well, a few bugs to work out.
— In “Animal Quiz,” your Google Home device will ask questions and try to guess the animal you’re thinking of. When we tried it, Google failed to guess “turkey.”
— “Genius” just gives you information about songs. (It’s a very limited genius.) It didn’t recognize “The Star Spangle Banner,” our national anthem, and told us it was probably an album by Jay Z and Kanye West. Seems unlikely.
— “And Chill” offers movie recommendations. We said we liked “Sleepless in Seattle” for its romance, and it said we might like “Man Up,” “Mr. Nobody,” “Revolutionary Road” and several others. Never heard of them.
— “Reverse Math.” You’re given an answer, such as 90, and have to think of three numbers that when multiplied together get that. How about nine, ten and one? That was easy.
There are nearly a hundred of these actions to choose from. (The other gadget, Amazon Alexa, by the way, has 8,000.) To find what’s available, tap the Google Home app on your phone, then “more settings,” then “services.”
Some are remarkably specific, such as the dates and hours for Seattle’s public swimming season, the lunch menu at St. Joseph’s school (they didn’t bother to say which St. Joseph’s school and there are dozens), and the public transportation schedule in Prague. “Mr. Doggy” tells you what’s safe for your dog to eat. (Food, we would guess.) There’s no search function, you have to scroll through them all.
By the way, we’ve often read that Google Home is better than the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot in answering questions, but it’s a mixed bag. Alexa told us that Spain was bigger than Sweden, but Google Home said it didn’t know. Sometimes Google knows but Alexa doesn’t. On the other hand, when you’re looking for Alexa’s new skills, rather than go through all 8000, you can search by topic.
— StrangeUSA.com says it’s the ultimate collection of the strange. Click on a U.S. state, then a city. We tried Joy’s old hometown of Newport Beach, California. One of the items said the Coronado Apartments, where her nephew lives, is haunted by the spirit of a woman. Lights go on and off, muffled voices are heard, and phantom music emanates. (They just don’t understand the erratic power system in Newport Beach.) They said John Wayne’s yacht in the Bay is haunted by John Wayne. (Bob has been on this boat and didn’t hear a peep. He says it’s more likely he haunts the airport, which he hated.)
— KhanAcademy.org has thousands of courses. A new one is “Pixar in a Box.” You learn how the people behind “Toy Story,” “Up” and “Inside Out” create their movies.
— “Big Dogs, Little Kids.” Google that phrase. These are the really cute.
— “How to Use Steve Jobs’ Insanely Simple Strategy For Getting What You Want.” Google this phrase to find an article in Inc. Magazine that includes a video clip of Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, explaining his strategy. As a 12 year-old, he called up the president of Hewlett Packard, who offered him a summer job.