I was at the Googleplex the day Steve Jobs passed and there are two things about Google I will never forget from that day. First is the fact that Google paid a lot of respect by linking its homepage to Apple’s. The second thing is what a Google VP of sales sarcastically said during his partner summit speech: “Apple says they launched yesterday a revolutionary voice recognition system, something that we introduced to the Android OS more than a year ago.” Well, I did not expect anyone to react at that moment, but I immediately felt that he was missing something.
After comparing my experience with both Apple’s Siri and Google’s voice actions, I am absolutely positive that he was, indeed, deadly wrong. Maybe the approaches are not so different in a feature-by-feature dry comparison. However, from the user experience perspective and potential implications for the future, they are far apart. Apple did launch something with a potential to be revolutionary.
Apple once again did not invent anything new and this remains true for nearly every product they have brought to consumers thus far. Let’s recall the Macintosh introduced in 1984 as the first personal computer to bring the desktop metaphor to life. Elements that already existed, including the mouse, keyboard and a graphical user interface were finally brought together to bring elements of our real life to our then complicated relationship with computers. An affordable personal computer would be easier to handle by a common person. I still remember the first time I dragged a file to the trash icon on the desktop to delete it. It was mind blowing. The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad share a similar story: they weren’t the first pieces of technology in their respective markets, but the ones that transformed them because of their human-centric approach.
So, again, Siri isn’t bringing any new technology, but it is certainly bringing voice recognition and artificial intelligence to the masses very nicely together. Siri was a standalone app available on the app store, but it never picked up steam because it provided a poor user experience. Apple had the vision to acquire the company behind Siri and was able to leverage it and package it so nicely within the iOS that it will probably be remembered as Apple’s invention. Just as many people think Adobe invented Flash.
But then, how does Siri set itself apart from Google’s voice actions? The videos below will tell much about the difference, just take a moment to watch them.
Google’s Voice Actions Video:
Apple’s Siri Ad:
Once again Apple did it right. Siri wraps itself around human needs and expectations. Do you remember Chuck Noland, a character in “Castaway” (Dreamworks, 2000) played by Tom Hanks and his volleyball named Wilson? They dramatically showed us a basic and visceral need humans share: to communicate. Apple has certainly brought us a bit of Wilson with Siri.
Google launched “voice actions” a year ago and maybe a good number of users are taking advantage of it. The Google engineer in the video says “Man, that’s a lot to remember …”. Exactly, when it’s a lot to remember, I usually forget about it. In contrast, in the Apple video you see common people with real use cases asking a personal assistant rather than using command-line like instructions. This is a huge difference.
A very good example is when you want to know about the weather. In Google Voice Actions you would say “weather New York tomorrow” and rather than a spoken response, you get something to see or select. Voice Actions is a query interpreter to replace typing. With Siri you can ask “What’s the weather going to be tomorrow in New York?” or “Is it going to rain tomorrow in New York?” The answer could be something more natural like “It doesn’t look like you need an umbrella”
Apple has in its hands something extremely powerful. Not only will “Siri in the cloud” be able to listen to millions of our questions, but also desires and use cases beyond prediction. This is only possible because in Siri’s case you don’t need to remember commands, you simply ask using natural language. Sometimes it won’t work, but it will nonetheless generate learning. Apple will be able to evolve the platform by understanding local and global needs and use cases.
There are other scenarios where Siri can shine. One of them is to have Siri as a “professional web searcher.” You ask Siri in natural language and it searches the web using the appropriate – advanced – queries. As an example you could ask Siri to “search articles about Hispanic migration between 1995 and 2000 in Census.gov” which would generate the query “Hispanic migration site:census.gov intitle:1995 to 2000” to Google.
Nothing prevents Siri from being extended to the Mac and being your personal assistant anywhere. Searching for emails or files in your computer would finally sound more natural. You would say “Show me pictures of me and my wife from our latest trip to Hawaii” and Siri would fire up iPhoto and use Places and Faces to get you the right pictures.
I attended the last WWDC back in June and recall Jobs saying “You know, if the hardware is the brain and the sinew of our products, the software in them is their soul.” Siri has been turned into the new iPhone’s soul and this seems to be just the beginning.
But Google is a giant that can react quickly. The voice-related battlefield is yet to see its biggest battle.