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How Google Home and the Amazon Echo give a new twist to the home phone

The Google Pixel phone, right, and the Google Home smart speaker. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The death of the landline has been well-documented for years, as cellphones have become the primary phone for the majority of Americans. But now, thanks to tech companies' obsession with the smart home, the home phone is making a comeback.

Well, sort of.

Google has announced that starting Wednesday it is adding hands-free calling to its Google Home smart speaker. Anyone with a Home will now be able to use the device as a stand-alone speakerphone. You can have it call someone in your Google account's contacts list, for example, or ask it to search for and place a call to the “nearest florist.”

The Google Home won't necessarily have its own phone number; right now, calls placed through Home will show up in caller ID as unknown numbers. But users will eventually be able to display their mobile numbers on the Home. Those with Google Voice or Project Fi can also assign those numbers to the Home.

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The calls, which are free, are not tied to your smartphone, meaning you could actually call a different contact on each device at the same time. The Google Home can also distinguish between voices, meaning that it should be able to call the right “Mom” based on whether you or your kids are making that request.

Google now joins Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung in powering smart home hubs with calling capabilities. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And fans are hoping that Apple will include an audio version of FaceTime, its WiFi-enabled voice chat program, in its upcoming HomePod speaker.

What these companies are doing is putting a new twist on the old home phone, which has steeply declined as cellphones have soared in popularity. A majority of American homes, 50.8 percent, rely solely on cellphones for their phone service, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (The center has been tracking this trend for years as part of an in-person survey that looks at health-care access.)

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“Calling friends, family and businesses is something that we all do every day,” Google said in a statement, “and it's one of those tasks your Assistant on Google Home should be able to help you with, especially when your hands are full at home and you just can't dial that number!”

As Google hints, having a stationary device to place calls could be convenient for consumers whose cellphone is lost somewhere in the couch cushions or who are unable to use a touch screen. In that way, the home hub is more convenient than a traditional home phone — no pesky dialing.

Of course, there are some disadvantages. For one, the speaker's sound quality during a phone call tends to be worse than that of a traditional home phone. (We'll have to see how well Google handles this once the feature rolls out.) Plus, having a conversation blaring from a speaker isn't exactly private.

And there's another, more urgent issue to note: Google Home, like other Internet-based calling services, does not support emergency calls. So if you need to reach 911, Google Home won't be able to make that call for you.