When you first begin using Siri it’s not entirely clear what you can do with it. (It’s also not clear how to access it.) Yesterday Danny wrote up some initial thoughts/criticisms of the Siri local search experience. In this piece I’m going to offer some general thoughts comparing Siri (on an iPhone 4S) with Google Voice Actions on my current phone (Android EVO) as well as some head to head examples of queries on both.
Siri Leans on Google
If you say to Siri, “What can I ask you?” it returns a list of the categories of things it can do. However when I rephrased the question slightly and asked “What can I do with Siri,” it sent me to a Google search result.
Indeed, Siri is not a Google killer. It relies heavily on Google search for things it can’t do or answer. For many users Siri may become the voice front end to Google search on the iPhone 4S and beyond. We may see Google’s query volume on the iPhone increase and not decrease accordingly. (The conventional wisdom is that Siri is a direct threat to Google but the reality is somewhat more nuanced — so to speak.)
What Can You Do with Siri?
In less than a handful of days since the first demo phones were distributed there are already hundreds (maybe even thousands) of articles discussing and evaluating Siri’s capabilities. But most iPhone 4S owners will need to play with Siri for a few days to understand how best to use it. Here are the kinds of things you can do with Siri:
- Initiate calls
- Find friends/family members (relies on find my friends account)
- Play music
- Send texts/emails
- Create notes
- Create calendar entries
- Set alarms
- Get directions
- Get answers to factual questions
- Search the internet
You can do many (but not all) of those same things with Google Voice Actions already. I’m sure that Google will quickly be working on ways to improve Voice Actions to minimize or eliminate Siri as a competitive advantage for the iPhone.
Siri More “Conversational” than Google Voice Actions
Siri uses Nuance speech processing technology on the front end to recognize and capture speech “utterances.” (As an aside, Nuance has its own “assistant” in the form of the app Dragon Go!) Siri’s “secret sauce” involves its capacity to understand your question in a natural speech form rather than relying on keywords or rigid protocols to initiate specific actions. Google’s technology was developed in house and is somewhat more rigid than Siri. It requires certain key phrases or words to invoke particular actions.
Nonetheless, Google Voice Actions is impressive in its own right and can do a great deal. But my guess is that most Android owners haven’t used it much beyond voice search or using speech instead of the keyboard to dictate emails or texts. That may now change as Android users, seeing the hype around Siri, explore the broader potential of Google Voice Actions.
Siri Has “Personality”
What Siri offers that is not equally true for Google Voice Actions or Nuance’s Dragon Go! is broad and deep integration into the phone and a more conversational style of interaction. This is subtle but meaningful in comparing the experiences of using Siri and Google Voice Actions. Siri has personality whereas Google Voice Actions does not. Siri is also generally more intuitive. In terms of most features, however, Google Voice Actions and Siri are fairly comparable — though Siri does more things.
Google Voice Actions does a great job with web search, initiating calls, emails and texts. It doesn’t really do notes (it turns them into emails), calendar entries or alarms. In terms of local search and directions, Google does a better job (chiefly because of Google Places and Navigation).
Below are some informal comparisons of a range of queries using Google Voice Actions and Siri on the iPhone 4S.
What is the best Japanese restaurant in San Francisco?
Google: Google provides its familiar Places Web search results, showing a number of Japanese restaurants in San Francisco. You can then call or click into the Google Places profile pages for reviews and additional information.
Siri: For most local queries you get a list of businesses from Yelp, ranked by reviews. If you scroll to the bottom of the list you can access Yelp itself and get a great deal more information — though this capability is buried. (If you’ve got the app installed it takes you directly to those results in the app.) However, as Danny wrote yesterday, if you click through on any of the individual listings from Siri you’re taken to a Google Map but there’s no additional content or information. It’s a big disappointment and generally weak experience.
Find the closest gas station
Google: Google provided a reasonably good list of Places results showing gas stations nearby
Siri: Siri delivered a more locally accurate list in terms of proximity to me.
When is Hanukkah this year?
Google: Google delivered an answer at the top of search results
Siri: Siri answered the question without sending me to the web. There’s a way in which this is more immediate and satisfying than looking at a SERP with lots of links. (However that’s a matter of personal preference.)
How old is Lady Gaga?
Google: Google provided an answer (25 years old) based on several sources
Siri: Siri delivered a single result (25 years 6 months) from WolphramAlpha
What’s the weather in Istanbul Turkey?
Google: Google offers a nice, graphical display of the weather
Siri: Siri shows a rich five-day outlook for the weather. These two presentations are comparable though I prefer the one on Siri (again, completely subjective)
How many small businesses are there in the United States?
Google: Google sent me to a SERP, with the top result being the US Small Business Administration website that offered a number in the snippet — essentially an answer.
Siri: Siri completely failed at this question, returning a list of businesses near Washington DC.
In Most “Search Contexts” Google and Siri Are Comparable
I did many more queries like this and could go on and on with this comparison. In the end Google and Siri are relatively comparable, though Google delivers better results in some cases and Siri in others. However they’re not mutually exclusive. As I suggested above iPhone 4S owners can use Siri as a voice front end to Google web search. You just say “search the web for . . .” and Siri initiates a Google search. It’s much easier than launching a browser or the Google search app.
I suspect we’ll see Google query volumes increase on the iPhone as a result of Siri usage. I also believe that Siri will be widely used by iPhone 4S owners. Its centrality on the device and its generally broad set of capabilities will make Siri fairly compelling to iPhone users. As Siri adds more structured data sources over time it will become even more useful. The Siri app had a broader array of transactional capabilities (e.g, OpenTable reservations), which Apple has scaled back for this initial relaunch.
Mainstreaming of Voice and Voice Search
The introduction of Siri as a marquee feature on the iPhone will change the way people interact with their phones and how competitors are forced to respond. Google, with its already powerful voice assets, doesn’t have far to go to match or nearly match Siri’s capabilities. Microsoft also has formidable speech assets but there’s nothing like Siri or Google Voice Actions on Windows Phones currently. RIM will be compelled to develop something comparable or be left further behind.
Many people have commented that Siri can and should interact more widely with iPhone apps generally. I believe that’s probably on the roadmap. Regardless of its current limitations, however, Siri’s introduction represents the mainstreaming of voice applications and voice search. And at the risk of hyperbole I’ll say that Siri also represents something of a paradigm shift in how we will interact with mobile devices going forward.