Google unveils Singapore online store, retails Home and Home Mini

Tech giant launches local store and avails its smart speakers at retail outlets, while its execs attempt to allay data security fears by stressing the devices are designed around the company's privacy framework.

Google is launching a Singapore version of its online store and bringing its range of smart speakers to the city-state.

Available from April 20, the Google Home and Home Mini would be offered at local retail chains Challenger and Courts as well as telco StarHub, with which the US tech vendor previously partnered to resell its mesh networking system, Google Wifi.

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Speaking to local media, Google's vice president of product management Rishi Chandra underscored the company's commitment to its fledgling hardware business and the importance of voice in its attempts to design products that were "more natural". Integral to this also was artificial intelligence (AI), he said, pointing to ongoing efforts to smarten up its voice-powered personal assistant application, Google Assistant.

"We're seeing a transition from mobile-first world to AI-first world," Chandra said. "We're looking to reinvent all of our products to make it more nature and we think voice is going to be a big part of that. Voice can fundamentally change how you interact with computers."

The Singapore launch marked the first in Southeast Asia where consumers would be able to purchase Home for S$189 and Mini for S$79, along with support for local services such as news and banking. They also could buy Google's Pixel and Pixel 2 mobile phones as well as Chromecast and Wifi via the local store.

Mickey Kim, Google's Asia-Pacific director of product planning and partnerships, added that local developers could access the vendor's development platform for Assistant, Actions on Google.

Kim further noted that there were plans to extend the availability of its products in other Asia-Pacific markets, though, it currently had nothing specific to announce.

Home was launched in India last week and in Japan late-last year. According to the Google executives, there currently were no plans to release its Home Max speaker--launched last December--outside the US market.

Designed around privacy, transparency

Following Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, ZDNet asked how Google had worked to address growing data security concerns, especially since a previous flaw in Home resulted in the device recording almost every sound it detected.

There also were questions around whether Amazon's competing product, Echo, could be wiretapped and whether the company was handing user data over to governments.

Chandra stressed that Google's devices were not wiretapped and data would be discarded when the "hotword", or when users said "Ok Google", was not detected. Information also would be transmitted from the device to Google's servers only to process user's instruction or request, he added.

"Everything we designed around Home is designed around Google's privacy framework. We want to be transparent and give user control," he said. This meant being clear through the user interface when data was being recorded, he noted.

This, in fact, had enabled the previous flaw on Home to be identified, Chandra said, pointing to a light on the device that turned on to indicate when data was being transmitted. This had allowed the bug to be uncovered, he said.

He added that the user's data across all Google platforms including Search and Home could be managed on a single backend, enabling them to easily view and delete their information.

Actions on Google developers also were not allowed to access the microphone on Home, he noted.

The company would be keen to get things right on the hardware front, since it was betting on high returns from the sector.

According to Chandra, Google believed hardware was a critical driver of AI and, as such, could be a successful business for the company.

Asked how much hardware was contributing to its overall revenue, he declined to reveal the details.