The major players in the mobile platform wars are always looking for ways to improve their operating systems and differentiate them from the competition. There’s a general trend emerging that is focused on allowing us to interact with our smartphones without having to touch them. Wearable tech, initially in the shape of smart watches and glasses, may free us from the tyranny of the touchscreen, but there’s another hands-free option that’s available right now.
The ability to issue voice commands has improved dramatically in recent months. We’re approaching the point where our smartphones can serve as useful personal assistants. Android and iOS have taken significant steps in this direction and there are strong rumours that Microsoft is ready to follow suit in the Windows Phone 8.1 update. So, what can these virtual assistants do and how do they stack up against each other?
It didn’t roll out into Android until the summer of 2012, but Google Now was a real game changer from the start in terms of its potential. The platform already had basic voice search options and various apps that claimed to act as personal assistants, but none of them could leverage the contextual data that Google has about anyone who relies on its services and ecosystem. The voice recognition is comparatively impressive, although all of these services will sometimes misinterpret your command or request. The really interesting thing about Google Now is its ability to learn from your past actions, scan your Gmail and calendar, tap into your search history, and pre-empt your needs with a suggestion.
Google Now can remind you about an appointment and show you the fastest way to get there. It can learn about your connections and your routines and then offer relevant suggestions. In addition to basic calendar management, it will throw up information that you might be interested in based on your past behaviour and location. The more you put in, the more you potentially get out. For best results you will be fully tied into Google’s services and you’ll have location tracking and internet access at all times.
Another major attraction of Google Now, though it’s currently only available through the Moto X, is the ability to say “Okay, Google Now” and bring your assistant to life without having to touch the phone at all. That’s thanks to something called an X8 chip which is apparently listening for its master’s voice all the time, somehow without draining the battery too much.
Apple’s virtual assistant doesn’t have the same ambition and resourcefulness as Google Now. It’s not going to guess what you want; it just waits for you to ask. The list of things that Siri can handle is growing all the time. You can use it to send messages, schedule appointments, set reminders, search for a good curry house nearby, play Debaser by the Pixies, or get last night’s Celtic score. The voice recognition is fairly solid, but if you have an accent then expect to repeat yourself a lot. It is also capable of questioning you about what you want.
It looks as though Apple is exploring ways to improve Siri, but it’s not growing as fast as Google Now. There’s a fascinating look at what Siri originally was and could be in this Huffington Post piece. Part of the problem is Apple’s partnership process with outside services, because it has to draw data from somewhere. It simply doesn’t have the data that Google does.
Named after an AI character in Halo, Cortana is just a rumour right now. The Verge showed off some screenshots of a test version and it could roll out in the forthcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update. This may initially be a boost over the voice commands that you can currently use in Windows Phone, pulling in things like local weather reports and information from your calendar, but the potential is much greater.
Microsoft can also leverage a great deal of data about people tied into its services. There’s the Satori knowledge repository which powers Bing, but if Cortana becomes a central part of Microsoft’s new consolidation then it may find its way onto your computers, laptops, and your living room through the latest Xbox. An artificially intelligent assistant capable of learning, providing real assistance, and making good suggestions that’s present on all your devices could be a real winner.
Which is best?
Right now there’s no doubt that Google Now wins. It’s faster, more accurate, and it has more features. Siri is definitely improving, but it has a way to go. We’ll have to wait and see what Cortana has in store. That futuristic vision of artificially intelligent assistants might be closer than we think.