Google Assistant is expanding multilanguage and feature phone support

By Dieter Bohn

KaiOS on the Nokia 8110 banana phone KaiOS
KaiOS

Mobile World Congress is this week, but Google hasn’t been taking the opportunity of the biggest phone show of the year to make big Android announcements for the past few years. But the company has another mobile software platform that is becoming as important: the Google Assistant.

So this year, it’s announcing a handful of new features designed to expand it into the developing market. More Android phones will have a Google Assistant button, Google Assistant is getting voice typing on KaiOS feature phones, and its support for multiple languages is expanding.

First, LG and Nokia are going all-in with the Google Assistant button on their phones, putting it on their “full portfolio of new Android devices,” according to Google. Later this year, Xiaomi, TCL, and Vivo will also launch phones with the button. When all those phones start getting sold, Google anticipates that there will be over 100 million devices with the button.

Fortunately, Google is working to enforce some consistency in its behavior for the button. A single press launches it, a double-press brings up the Assistant’s daily feed of information, and a long-press starts a “walkie talkie” mode. Unfortunately, Google is not going to allow remapping of that button — something Samsung finally is beginning to do with its dedicated Bixby button. It can be disabled, however, and I’m told that Google may be “flexible” on remapping depending on feedback.

Second, Google is expanding what the Assistant can do in KaiOS, a feature phone platform that has been picking up steam in developing markets. Google invested $22 million in the OS last year, and today it’s wending its way deeper into that OS. Now, whenever a user sees a cursor on the screen, they’ll be able to use the Google Assistant to voice type in instead of using T9 to tap out messages. Google says that a lot of KaiOS users prefer to leave their phone’s interface in English even though they speak a different language, and the Assistant will still work for voice typing on those phones.

Speaking of languages, Google is adding support for seven new Indic languages: Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Urdu. It is also expanding support for dual-language speakers. Before, it could let you switch seamlessly between English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese and Italian, and now it’s adding Korean, Hindi, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Dutch to that list.

Last but not least, Google is expanding the places where the Assistant shows up inside Android apps. It already put Google Assistant inside Maps, but that feature won’t be English-only anymore. It will come to all languages the Google Assistant supports. It’s also coming to Android Messages, Google’s default texting app. We have a full write up of that separately, but the key thing you probably want to know is that Google won’t be scanning your texts to enable that feature.