Like it or not, voice control on mobile devices is back, and this time it may be here to stay.

That’s a more complex introduction than it seems. I want to dissect it a little, piece by piece, and I want to do it out of order, just to keep you on your toes.

The first prerequisite we need to cover is that voice control on mobile devices came about in the first place: for something to be “back,” it needs to have first existed. For decades, talking to a piece of technology that was intelligent enough to understand you was the stuff of science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s docile-then-deadly HAL 9000 is probably the most famous example, closely followed by the countless instances of voice-interface technology in the various incarnations of Star Trek over the years. Even Star Trek didn’t envision much voice-control capability in field devices, though; the handheld communicators were basically glorified walkie-talkies, and only the more recent incarnations of the series showcased any verbal intelligence in the various bits of gadgetry being wielded by our heroes. The rest of the time, if something was smart enough to be talked to, it was built into the Enterprise or it was the size of a refrigerator.

We’ve already overused the Scotty-talking-to-the-mouse image from Star Trek IV, so here’s William Shatner talking to a metal flower pot.

As tends to happen in real life (because sometimes it’s awesome), real-science came to the rescue and absolutely blew apart what we thought we were capable of back in the ’60s. My first mobile phone, an SCH-3500 from Samsung, came with ten programmable slots for voice dialing. I could set the phone to start listening the minute I opened the flip, and it would dial literally whoever I told it to. And this was in 2001.

But up above, I said voice command “is back.” Which implies it went away for a while.

Well, it didn’t go away, per se, but it definitely took a step into the shadows for a good bit of time there. Most dumbphones actually continued to incorporate the feature over the next few years, and the technology improved. Just two years after I bought that first mobile phone, I upgraded to Samsung’s SPH-A600, which featured speaker-independent voice dialing: instead of relying on a library of pre-recorded sound clips, the phone was able to voice-dial anyone in my address book. No recording cues, no slow recitation of “Dad Cell;” just a few minutes of one-time training were required to unlock the magic.

You’re a friggin’ genius.

But even though the feature had improved, its cachet had diminished. Voice-dialing wasn’t a big selling point anymore, as the feature set of mobile phones had quickly expanded far beyond the humble voice call. Over the years, voice dialing and voice interface in general gradually diminished in importance in the mobile space. In the smartphone world, devices built for power users still often incorporated the feature, but not all of them: the original iPhone launched without voice dialing, as did the Palm Pre.

The feature experienced a gradual resurgence between 2009 and 2010, as Cupcake brought more voice-interface features to Android and several voice-controlled apps gained prominence in the Apple App Store, notably Nuance’s Dragon Dictation. But it wasn’t until Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and Apple’s iOS 5 launched only days apart last October that the true new chapter in voice interface began. On Android, this manifested in continuous, real-time speech dictation alongside the existing voice-search feature set. On iOS, it was Siri.

… seen here quietly plotting your eventual demise.

Siri has been talked about ad nauseam over the course of iOS5’s tenure, with sharp divides forming in user camps over her relative usefulness. Useful or not, though, she’s gotten a lot of attention. Whether you feel that attention is deserved or not probably depends on how badly you’re afflicted with fanboy disease, but there’s one thing even the most brutally anti-Apple or fawningly pro-Apple folks must acknowledge: the advertising and marketing buzz surrounding Siri has changed the landscape. It’s brought voice control back into the limelight. You don’t need to believe me; you just need to look as far as Samsung’s and LG’s imitators to see it for yourself.

Does that mean everyone uses it? Absolutely not. So many people don’t use Siri or its equivalents that we even titled our video tour of voice command on iOS 6 “You Didn’t Use Siri on the iPhone; Will You Use It On The iPad?

But if you ask me, a big reason for that reluctance is that even the new voice offerings haven’t done a terribly good job so far. Sure, Siri is a fun gimmick, and she’s clever in her replies to off-beat questions, but she’s still not capable enough to really make the experience of using a phone or tablet easier overall. And she’s the best of the bunch; compared to her, S Voice is a joke, and LG’s offering isn’t even out yet. It remains to be seen what Google’s voice interface offerings will mature into. I don’t think the version shipping with Jelly Bean is even close to what we’ll eventually see from the project formerly known as “Majel.”

Whoever’s providing the voice-interface software, though, it won’t go anywhere unless it follows the five steps our own Jaime Rivera listed in his recent article on doing Voice Control right.

Step One: Don’t be like S Voice.

There’s more to voice control than a personal assistant, though; I use the non-Siri dictation feature on my iPad constantly, and it works brilliantly for knocking out a quick email. Even more handy (because it’s on my phone) is Android’s speech-to-text dictation, which I use very often for text messages, tweets, and the like. The reason I use it so often: it’s performance is oustanding, and sometimes I prefer to enter text via voice because it’s faster, or because I don’t have both hands free to get up to full speed on the keyboard. Sometimes I just do it to alienate myself from my social circles impress chicks.

And correcting its grammar is just a finger-tap away.

Really, what it all comes down to is choice. The entire case for voice control on mobile is preference. You should have the option of as many input methods as you want on your communications devices. And voice is finally getting good enough to be a valid one; with dictation, it’s essentially already there. Voice input is the victimless crime of the wireless world; it doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t irreparably impair the usefulness of devices, and it provides a feature that some people find useful. Yet it gets hate from a lot of corners of the internet calling it a useless gimmick.

Is voice control a gimmick? Maybe. It definitely has some more growing up to do overall. But is it useless? Absolutely not. And as it grows smarter and more capable, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be included on mobile devices.


“S Voice Fail” photo source: AnandTech via iJailbreak 

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