By Jaime Rivera | June 27, 2012 8:00 AM
There’s no debating that Apple didn’t invent voice command or text-to-speech. As much as Siri is their new crown jewel, it didn’t even come from their labs. All Apple did was buy a great idea and improve it dramatically if compared to what Siri was originally. At times when competition between smartphone OEMs is fierce, it follows a trend we’ve seen for at least half a decade now, where manufacturers have already mastered the art of how phone calls should sound on what’s intended to act also as a phone, and the challenge now is, how else can it be set apart from competitors.
Sadly, to this day, people still debate whether it’s a gimmick or not. I’ve got friends that own an iPhone 4S and have never used Siri, and others who can’t live without it. Wanting it or having a need for it depends on each person. There are still tons of users that just use a phone for the basics, and there are others who feel that any OS falls short. What’s interesting about Siri though, is that it intends to make your interaction with the phone more natural, no matter how tech savvy you are. It’s main idea is not to serve as a feature, but someday, as a user interface.
An interesting note though is that Apple touts Siri as your own “Intelligent assistant” in all of it’s advertisement, which is kind of a tall order on my book. Whether it’s natural enough or smart enough an assistant are the questions we intend to answer after almost eight months of using it. I’m sure I’ll have my opinions about it as much as you do, so let’s begin
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my fair share of real assistants in previous jobs over the years. Some jobs are just so intense, that it’s hard to focus on the big picture if you’re dealing with all the routine chores that somebody else can easily be trained to do. In my opinion, an assistant should be good enough to attend the predictable part of the job, while you deal with the rest. Whether real or virtual, it should be smart enough to attend to all the basics for you, and keep you focused on other, more important things.
The problem with my way of viewing an assistant is that history threw me a curve ball. Not long ago, Pocket PCs and Palm Pilots were all called PDAs, which means Personal Digital Assistant. So even if my ideal has certain specific needs, there are other trends in the market that drop those standards dramatically if we use the functionality of a PDA as the concept to serve and compare.
Does it get the job done?
Siri is not a person sadly, and even though Steve Jobs once called the project “Artificial Intelligence”, it’s still a computer system that is programed to serve certain commands, and doesn’t really learn from you as you command it, with the exception of remembering specific nicknames for certain contacts you determine.
That said, it was programed to be quite useful. Voice command before Siri was good, but far behind it. You could ask previous systems to call a contact, dial a number, play a song or read your calendar, but you were forced to learn the commands, instead of having the service learn from you. The list of tasks was limited, and its ability to recognize your voice was undoubtedly in its infancy.
What Siri evolved was not only expanding that list of commands dramatically, but also including dictation in the mix. You’re not limited to only commanding it to do a specific task, but you can dictate variables of how you want that task to be performed. For example, updating your Facebook status in iOS 6, or sending a tweet with your thoughts at the moment is quite accurate, even when it’s just one command with a ton of variables. You don’t only tell it to set your alarm, but you can also dictate at what time you want it to sound, or for how long a timer should be set for. Again, it’s narrow on commands, but allows a vast amount of variables and gets it right a fair amount of the time. Probably the only time it doesn’t is when I give it a command that it doesn’t understand, but then again, what’s to be expected right?
How does it compare?
Comparing Siri to other services is complicated. If you don’t rely on it or care about it, you won’t consider it any better than what you currently have on your phone. But if we focused the comparison on functionality or ease of use, it’s hard to ignore how superior Siri is to other services.
To give you an example, I’m a big fan of dictation on Android. I feel it’s far better than any other service I’ve used on either iOS or Windows Phone. My love for it drops dramatically though, when I move over to Google’s Voice Actions. They’ve got a lot of really neat commands that compete head-to-head with Siri, but it’s extremely frustrating that I get sent to a browser 80% of the time that I say “Call Brandon Miniman at Mobile”. It sometimes makes me wonder if Google doesn’t do that on purpose since it’s a search company.
Another place where Voice Action fails is that it doesn’t respond back to you. Even Windows Mobile’s old Voice Command responded back in a geeky way almost half a decade ago, and it came very handy when you’re driving. Having a voice assistant that doesn’t interact with you becomes pointless, if the whole hands-free experience doesn’t include eyes-free too.
Michael’s recent comparison video of Siri with Samsung’s S Voice did show a competing service that’s pointed in the right direction. It’s still not at the level of accuracy that you’ll find on Siri, but It’s far better than Siri’s first iteration just eight months ago, which by-the-way, is still the service you’ll deal with until iOS 6 is officially launched in the fall.
The bottom line
Let’s face it, Siri is far from perfect. Apple was clear upon its launch in declaring it a beta, and given its shortcomings, we’ll have to agree with them. The fact we simply can’t ignore though is that whether the technology is there yet or not, Siri is what’s currently putting it there. Until somebody else comes up with something better, Siri still keeps the title of better for now.
Is it worth buying a phone just for a voice command service? That really depends on you. For guys like me, it helps sometimes, but it’s really not the reason why I choose a device. Hopefully that’ll change in years to come, but competition will be the only way that the necessary innovation will speed up.
If we were to judge Siri by the vast amount of commands available, and how well it handles variables, you could call it intelligent to some extent. Sadly, intelligence also requires a system’s ability to learn and adapt, and that’s still something that depends on a programmer over at Cupertino and not the user.
Does it get the job done in assisting you? There’s no denying that it does a great job in getting a lot of tasks done, but it won’t get them all. On my book, it’ll earn that title whenever Apple delivers on a system with true Artificial Intelligence that adapts and learns from its user. For now, and after more than half a year of constant use, I’d recommend it because it’s superior and has far more potential than its competitors, but not because it’s reached the ideal many of us search for.
With Google IO just hours away, let’s hope that true competitor is released along with the expected upgrade to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.