Google lays off “hundreds” more employees, strips Google Assistant features

AI SaaS

Google is looking pretty dilapidated these days.
Enlarge / Google is looking pretty dilapidated these days.

Aurich Lawson

Google’s cost-cutters are still working overtime, with more layoffs this week and cuts to Google Assistant functionality.

First up, The New York Times reports Google laid off “hundreds” of workers in “several divisions” on Wednesday. Core engineering, the Google Assistant, and the hardware division all lost people. The report says that “Google said that most of the hardware cuts affected a team working on augmented reality.” AR cuts are eyebrow-raising since that’s quickly going to be one of the highest-profile teams at the company this year, as Google, Samsung, and Qualcomm team up to battle the Apple Vision Pro. FitBit was apparently also a big loser, with 9to5Google reporting that Fitbit co-founders James Park and Eric Friedman and “other Fitbit leaders” have left Google.

Over the years, Google has rarely laid off workers, but since January of last year, a new focus on cost-cutting has made layoffs a regular occurrence at Google. The purge started with an announcement of 12,000 layoffs in January, which took until at least March to complete. Then there were more layoffs at Alphabet companies Waymo and Everyday Robots in March, Waze layoffs in June, recruiting layoffs in September, Google News cuts in October, and now these layoffs in January. There are rumors of more layoffs happening this month, too, focusing on the ad sales division.

Next up is a Google blog post titled “Changes we’re making to Google Assistant,” which details 17 features that are being removed from Google’s struggling voice assistant. Google says these “underutilized” features will be “no longer supported” at some point in the future, with shutdown warnings coming on January 26.

The Google Search bar, which (depending on your local anti-trust laws) is contractually obligated to be on the front of an Android phone, will no longer bring up the Google Assistant.

The Google Search bar, which (depending on your local anti-trust laws) is contractually obligated to be on the front of an Android phone, will no longer bring up the Google Assistant.

Ron Amadeo

The full list of cut features—it’s a big list—is here. The biggest and most ominous news is that the Google Assistant is losing its premium, default spot on the homepage of all Android devices. The microphone button in the Google Search bar is used to bring up the Assistant, but now it will only send your voice input directly to Google Search. You’ll still be able to bring up the Assistant using what are basically secret, invisible shortcuts, like saying “Hey Google” or long-pressing on the home button (if you have gesture navigation turned off), but this is a massive change that means the Assistant will no longer be front-and-center on Android phones.

The Assistant is from the Google Search division and was once considered the future of the company and the future of Google Search. If the Assistant couldn’t answer a question, it would just forward you to Google Search, so this change makes the microphone button a lot less useful. It also highlights the ongoing death of the Google Assistant, which has fallen out of favor at the company. (Android users unhappy about this should download the Google Assistant shortcut app.) Here are some of the features being removed:

  • Google Assistant’s messaging feature, where voice messages would be sent to any phones and tablets in your family group, is dead. Audio messages will still play on local network speakers, but Google is no longer sending notifications across the Internet to Android and iOS.
  • Google Play Books voice support sounds like it will be gone. You can still use generic audio-cast features from another device, but you can’t ask the Assistant to play an audiobook anymore.
  • Setting music alarms—not regular alarms—is dead. Controlling a stopwatch—not normal timer support—is also gone.
  • The death of Fitbit under Google continues with the removal of voice-control activities for the Fitbit Sense and Versa 3. A wrist-based Google Assistant is exclusive to the Pixel Watch in Google’s lineup, though that probably won’t last long either.

One problem with all voice assistants is that there’s no good way to communicate the hundreds of possible voice commands to users, so there’s a good chance you didn’t know most of these exist. Figuring out whether any given Google Assistant feature is available on a phone, speaker, smart display, car, TV, or headphones is also an impossible task. Some cut features I have never heard of include “managing your cookbook”—apparently there is a “Google Cookbook” of saved recipes available on smart displays and nowhere else. Google says it was previously possible to “send a payment, make a reservation, or post to social media” by voice on some platforms. When I ask the Google Assistant to do any of those things right now, it says, “I don’t know, but I found these results on search.” I’m not even sure where you would enter payment details for the Assistant to have access to (was this some iteration of Google Pay?) or how you would connect social media accounts.

It increasingly sounds like it’s time to pick out a nice plot of land in the Google Graveyard for the Assistant. On one hand, Google seems to want to shut this one down in exchange for “Pixie,” a voice assistant that will be exclusive to Pixel devices, starting with the Pixel 9. On the other hand, in October, Google promised the Assistant would be getting Bard generative-AI integration, so none of this lines up perfectly. It’s odd to be removing the Assistant from Android home screens, stripping it of features, planning a big revamp, and planning a direct competitor.

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