The Siri voice search assistant that Apple demoed today as part of its big press event looks pretty impressive. If it works as shown, it’ll go a long way in patching up one of the big weaknesses the iPhone has had versus Android, that of lacking built-in voice commands.
Voice Actions: A Spoken Magic Wand
I’ve used various Android phones with Google Voice Actions since Google first rolled them out in August 2010. They’re amazing. Press on the search button, speak a command, and the phone works its magic.
It’s very, very cool. I got a reminder of that a few months ago when visiting with a friend who was still using an old dumb phone. When we were talking, and a question about something came up, I whipped out my phone and spoke the question. Within a few seconds, Google search had delivered me the right answer.
Later, we were driving somewhere, not sure of the exact address, so I spoke “Navigate To” and the destination. Within seconds, the phone had brought up Android’s GPS feature, found the location we wanted and was giving turn-by-turn directions.
“How did you do that,” my friend asked.
I explained that it was part of Android, and that I could do other cool things. I spoke “Text” and her name, along with a message. In a few seconds, what I said magically appeared in a text message on her phone. That made her want the phone even more. By saying “Call” plus her name, I was calling her phone.
“I want this!” she exclaimed.
Apple’s iPhone Was Lacking
This is someone who should be a natural Apple customer. Her husband uses an iPhone. They own several Apple computers. But she wanted this phone that I could talk to, and get answers from, or make do things without pecking away at a keyboard, on screen or otherwise.
Knowing that my friend already had so much Apple in her life, I couldn’t recommend that she get an Android phone. Instead, I looked to see if there was a way that I could make some of what my Android phone did happen on an iPhone.
I mentioned that there was the Siri app. Some people have sworn by this app, including our technical director here, Michelle Robbins. But when I looked at Siri in the past, I just never found it that fast or super impressive, versus other ways I personally could search by phone. Fair to say, it wasn’t one of the most used iPhone apps out there. In fact, plenty of people first heard about Siri only today, I’d say.
When I did some spot checking of Siri against common Google Voice Actions last year, I found that Google also kept winning. So Siri was a possible solution for my friend, but not for the things she’d seen me do on my Android phone.
Beyond Siri, there was (and still is) Google Search By Voice for the iPhone, part of the Google Search app. That would allow her to speak her searches, but it still fell short of being a match to what Google Voice Actions were doing to complete tasks, and the ease in how they did that.
In the end, I said she’d be better off with an iPhone (and as it happened, that’s exactly what she got the next day from her husband, for her birthday). But if she hadn’t been in an Apple household, the voice features of Android might have pulled her over to that world.
The Siri Solution
That’s what Siri patches up, one of the big areas where Apple’s iPhone was weak against Android. When I did my last review of Android phones, Verizon 4G Android Faceoff: HTC ThunderBolt Vs. Samsung Droid Charge, I also covered the iPhone — and this was one of the four weaknesses I named:
In the end, I still find myself feeling a sense of relief when I go back to using my iPhone. The interface of native apps feels better. The overall experience feels better. The phone is more compact. It just seems to work better.
I sometimes wonder why I’m wanting to use an Android phone at all. But then I remember my three key reasons which are now joined by a fourth:
- Google Voice Actions
- GPS Navigation
- Google Voice
- 4G speed
Siri looks to go beyond what Google Voice Actions does now (and hey, Apple, how about letting us to your press event next time, so we can actually demo these things).
Does It Work That Well?
Another key is how well Siri actually works in real-life. The demos look impressive. Demos always do. Here’s both a commercial:
And a hands-on demo that look great:
Asking Siri to do things of all types, not just things demoed, however, will be telling. If the feature only works for some things, and not others, that’s frustrating for users.
Encouragingly, Engadget said Siri worked as well as demoed when they tried to “pysch it out.” It would be really surprising if Apple rolled it out without it actually being pretty good. For the most part, if Apple releases something for prime time, it really is ready for prime time — though the “Beta” moniker added to Siri (it wasn’t “beta” as an app) gives Apple some unusual wiggle room. I can’t recall Apple rolling out much of anything as a beta.
Seeing that the existing Siri app has been pulled from the App Store and likely from all existing iPhones as of October 15 suggests something else — that the new Siri depends more heavily on local processing that Google Voice Actions and Google Voice Search, which process in the cloud. Making Siri only for the iPhone 4S might be because only the iPhone 4S has the processing power required. Also buried at the end of the commercial above, some fine print about “a wi-fi connection may be required” makes me wonder about exactly when this is an issue.
Will Android Step Up? Still Has GPS, Google Voice…
As for Android, a key question there is whether Google’s going to be able to match Siri as part of its big mobile event with Samsung next week during CITA, where it’s widely expected that a new “Nexus Prime” phone will be unveiled along with the Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” operating system.
Overall, as I look at the strengths Android has versus the iPhone, Siri does seem poised to hurt one of them, or at least help level the field. But Android still has over the iPhone free turn-by-turn GPS, which is an incredibly powerful feature, one you start using it.
Android also continues to have better integration with a different voice service, that of Google Voice, where you can have one number that you point to any of your phones.
As for the 4G aspect, the iPhone 4S remains a 3G phone despite Apple’s claims of better speeds through smarter antennas. If you’ve ever had true 4G speed as provided by Verizon, which does the best of all the carriers I’ve tested (that includes AT&T and Sprint), 3G is no match.
Expect more from us on how Siri seems to measure up. We’ll be doing a head-to-head match against Android down the line, probably after we wait in line for an iPhone 4S.
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- Verizon 4G Android Faceoff: HTC ThunderBolt Vs. Samsung Droid Charge
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- Live Blog: Google Announces “Voice Actions” & “Chrome-To-Phone” For Android
- Google ‘Voice Actions’ Eases Search (& More) On Android
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