Google Now voice search vs Siri: Battle of the personal assistants

As big players in the mobile phone industry look to outperform each other on certain features, voice has become one of the biggest go-tos as they hope to garner customers in recent years.

Apple kicked things off on the iOS side with the introduction of Siri in October 2011 - the personal voice assistant the company hopes lives up to the Norwegian Siri name, meaning "beautiful woman who leads you to victory".

Google's Android incorporated Google Now in 2012, which won Popular Science's "Innovation of the Year". It was launched a little later than the iOS Siri, but nonetheless was called a solid competitor at the time. There's also Microsoft's voice-enabled search features in Windows Phone, but they aren't as wide-reaching as Siri and Google Now so we've held off comparing it here for the moment. Both companies peg themselves as having the best "intelligent personal assistants", but who really has the upper hand on features?

What is Siri?

"Siri. Your wish its command," says the Apple marketing blurb.

Siri is a personal assistant developed by Apple and is hard-coded into the company's iOS software. It was a standalone app available on the App Store in 2010, but has been part of iOS since 2011. It first appeared with the iPhone 4S and iOS 5 after Apple acquired the company behind it.

"Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk," Apple says. "Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it."

Siri prides itself on using natural language to have the answer to about anything you need. It can answer questions in a witty way, make recommendations for restaurants, perform tasks like calling or texting, and load information through supported web services. Apple says Siri can even learn your personal preferences over time and become more accurate the more it's used.

Unlike Google Now, Siri isn't available cross-platform. You'll only find it on iOS.

How does it work?

Siri is loaded by holding down the home button on an iPhone 4S or later. You'll then be prompted to speak a command to Siri for interaction with applications, including Reminders, Weather, Stocks, Messages, Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Music, Clocks, Safari, Wolfram Alpha and Maps within iOS.

Using natural language, Apple wants you to speak to Siri like you would a normal person. “Tell my wife I’m running late” or “remind me to call the vet” are legitimate requests with Apple's personal assistant. It will launch an application that makes sense with your response. For example, if you ask Siri to remind you of something, a Reminders panel will pop-up within the Siri window asking you to confirm it for later.

Apart from accessing apps quickly through voice, Siri can also give you information. You can ask for a sports score, movie showtimes that will then prompt you to buy tickets from Fandango, restaurant reviews, track your stocks, and even ask Siri about Siri. Ask “what can you do?” and Siri tells you exactly that.

Dictation

Also baked into Siri is dictation through iOS, something Apple really prides itself on. This is a feature Google actually incorporated into Android first. Instead of typing, users can tap the microphone icon on the keyboard to say what they want to say and the iPhone listens. Once you've spoken everything a "Done" option is available and iOS converts your words into text. "Use dictation to write messages, take notes, search the web, and more. Dictation also works with third-party apps, so you can update your Facebook status, tweet, or write and send Instagrams," Apple says.

Eyes free

Apple is working to incorporate Siri in a large way into automobiles. The company is working with manufacturers to bring Siri to vehicles through "eyes free" functionality. Users will be able to click a button within the car and not take their eyes off the road. They'll be able to perform normal Siri tasks like sending a text message, selecting music, performing a call, and using Maps to receive directions.

Siri Eyes free is available on several 2014 models from Chevy, Honda and Accura - with plenty of other partners lined up including BMW, GM, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota and Chrysler.

What is Google Now?

Google Now is a personal assistant developed by Google. It first debuted in July 2012 as part of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It's now available in the Google Search mobile apps for Android and iOS. Google Now is widely available across platforms, unlike Siri which is locked to just iOS.

Among of the core features in Google Now is its ability to help you manage your day with reminders and traffic alerts. It can also help you stay connected with news and weather reports. It will even provide local information such as nearby attractions and currency. Instead of requiring you to ask for information like Siri, Google Now will instead provide it to you automatically.

What are Google Now cards?

Google Now recognises your repeated actions. These repeated actions can be related to things like restaurants you frequently visit, annual calendar appointments, recurring search queries and more. Google Now subsequently serves up relevant information to you based on your repeated habits. This information appears in the form of cards.

There is a range of specialised cards, including ones for active summaries (walking, biking), birthdays, concerts, events, movies, news, appointments, places, public alerts, public transit, reminders, saved offers, stocks, sports, traffic, nearby attractions and events, translations, weather, etc.

Google Now also serves up information by leveraging Google's Knowledge Graph, a system that provides more detailed search results by analysing meaning and connections of keywords entered for search.

How does Google Now work?

Cards

If you really want to see what Google Now can do, then you should use it for a while, because it needs to understand your repeated actions like movements and the kind of information you are interested in or usually search. Just give it time to learn about you, quietly, in the background on your device, and you’ll soon reap the benefits.

The more Google Now learns, the better it can get you to appointments via real-time traffic conditions or reminders, for instance. Google Now cards will simply pop up with information related to you, and you can either swipe the cards away or tap them to get more detailed information. You can also scroll down on cards to request more cards.

Voice search

Google Now supports a range of voice commands and functions. You could always type searches into the search box, or you could unlock Google Now's true power and convenience by utilising voice search. All you have to do to activate voice search in the Google Search app is say “OK, Google Now," and it will anticipate follow-up questions and provide useful related information.

Here’s an example list of questions and commands:

  • Who is the Queen of England?
  • Show me the stocks for Twitter.
  • Go to Pocket-lint.com.
  • Play The Beatles.
  • Wake me up in a half hour.
  • Remind me to order dinner when I get home.
  • Launch Google Plus.

How is Google Now's voice search improving?

Conversational search

Google's Amit Singhal gave a keynote on the future of search at Google I/O 2013. He explained that forward-thinking search engines will need to evolve in order to answer, converse, and anticipate. Specifically, Singhal focused on conversational search and hot-wording, the ability to search without requiring an interface.

An example of conversational search includes being able to load the Google search engine by simply stating, "OK Google." The search engine could then answer queries in conversation as well as presenting results for the query. In the demonstration at I/O, Google's Johanna Wright showed how conversational search worked with Google's Knowledge Graph.

"Show me things to do in Santa Cruz," she told the search engine. The search engine responded, "Here are popular attractions in Santa Cruz," along with presenting results for the query. "The Knowledge Graph knows that Santa Cruz is a place, and that this list of places are related to Santa Cruz," Wright added.

Google Now conversational search

Google is clearly trying to make searching with Google as easy as possible. And it thinks conversational search is the best way - because it's the future, whether it be on a laptop or mobile device.

In the Google Search app for Android and iOS, you can say "OK Google" to launch voice search. You can also set reminders by saying things like “Remind me to check out the fair this weekend."

With Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5, you can also launch voice search by saying "OK Google" directly from the home screen. This technically indicates a step away from Google Now, but it's still part of the overall message: Google search is trying to go hands-free via voice.

At this very moment, asking Google Now about a certain topic might not garner the most accurate or snappy response, but at Google's current innovation pace, Google Now will one day be able to give you helpful responses dredged up from discussions you had with it in a previous conversation. That's the ultimate goal for Google, anyway.

Google Now is all about the Knowledge graph, voice search and specialised cards, just like conversational search is about the Knowledge graph, voice recognition and serving up information. It's inevitable that the two technologies will fully converge, or rather, evolve into a single search product from Google that can answer, converse and anticipate.

Google Now-like conversational search in Chrome

One week after Singhal's keynote on conversational search, Google updated Google Search for Chrome and Chrome OS with what it called the "no-interface" approach.

The update gave desktop users the ability to launch Google Search by saying "OK Google." They could then ask a question, and Google's Knowledge would provide a voice response with results. Users could even ask things like "Send an email to Jake" or "Show me my photos from London last year."

One of the most useful features of conversational search is the Knowledge Graph's ability to parse together what you're saying. For instance, just ask “How old is Queen Elizabeth II?”. Chrome will speak the answer. You could then ask a series of follow-up questions like “How tall is she?” or “Who is she married to?”. Google will know who you are referring to in each question and can interpret pronouns appropriately.

No typing, clarification or button-presses required.

Note: Although Chrome enables conversational search with voice recognition and natural language understanding similar to the way Google Now works on mobile devices, it does not have the full Google Now card user experience.

Conclusion 

So which one is better? Well as always with these things, there isn't an easy answer and it depends what you are looking for to suit your needs.

Google's voice conversational search is very impressive, when it works. And if you are looking for multiple queries, just not at once, then it's certainly worth giving it a try.

The system will get better and the ability either through the Google Search app on iPhone or the home screen on the Nexus 5 to just start barking commands is very clever, but with that ambition comes failure sometimes and that can be frustrating. Still, in many cases using your voice to search is quicker than typing, certainly if you are on the go; just make sure you are in a quiet environment.

As for the Cards, they too can be very useful when right, giving you weather information where you are and where you are heading, telling you about travel times to your next meeting, or reminders so you don't forget stuff. It's a much more complete service compared to Apple's Siri, which to deliver the same information needs to access a number of apps; calendar, reminders, weather, etc. But your searches can have a rogue affect and at times that can be confusing. 

Siri's approach, again when it works, is to try and focus more on pretending to be your friend, and be a true personal assistant to getting more out of your phone. Phrases like "Tell my wife I am running late", flummox Google Now, but return a text message ready to send in Siri.

Likewise, you can use your voice to open apps and if you get it wrong rather than providing you with what it thinks you might need, you get a snarky answer. "What's my favourite colour?" brings back phrases like, "I can do many things but reading your mind isn't one of them." Google just gives you results for favourite colour tests. But it won't tell you you've got stuff on your to-do list, or what the weather is like on the business trip or holiday you are about to go on. 

Of course, in a strange twist of fate, Apple users get to have their cake and eat it as they can run both. 



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