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The Siri Effect: Why Android Needs A Better Voice Interface

by Michael Fisher on January 3, 2013 5:26 PM

On the last 2012 episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, recorded immediately  following the Christmas holiday, we spent a little time trading tales of gadgets wished-for and gadgets received from generous gift-givers.

More importantly, we also swapped stories of an observational nature. The holidays are more than an opportunity to re-learn how to share a table with distant relatives; if you’re lucky, they’re also an occasion to observe how normal people interact with technology – often new technology. We talked about that more on today’s episode of the Weekly -heavens, we do chat our faces off on that thing, don’t we?- and it spurred me to comment on the current state of voice-driven personal smartphone assistants.

We’re no strangers to voice-command here at Pocketnow. Back in July, I presented a strong case for the role of voice control in human-smartphone interactions. I followed that up in August with a fun experiment in which I spent a week without a keyboard, relying solely on vocal inputs when dealing with my mobile devices. Then there was my lengthy exploration of Siri and a bit of fiddling with Samsung’s inferior S Voice. Jaime Rivera chimed in at one point to express his thoughts on Siri, and we closed the year out with a big Windows Phone-vs-iOS-vs-Android voice-dictation showdown. So this is familiar ground.

But the beautiful thing about software is that it’s always changing, with OTA upgrades routinely delivering new and better functionality. In fact, that happened just before I sat down to write this piece, with my Galaxy Note II informing me that an update was available for Google Now. After spending some time with the revamped personal assistant, I came away impressed — but I remain convinced that Google has some work to do before its voice-assistant feature can truly go toe-to-toe with Apple’s Siri.

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Typically this is where I present a bulleted rundown of the reasons behind my assertion, but in this case I’ve just got one point: it all boils down to personality, and Google Now has none of it.

Much has been made of Siri’s quirky and fun manner of dealing with all kinds of inputs outside of her usual purview. There are entire websites devoted to aggregating her tongue-in-cheek replies to questions and statements ranging from “I love you” to “open the pod bay doors” to “I need to hide a body.” Even her conventional, “serious” replies are delivered, more often than not, in a surprisingly human tone. There’s the illusion of an intelligence there, a personality so pronounced that I’ve taken to referencing Siri by gender in my writing.

If rumors and conjecture are to be believed, Google’s voice interface started life rooted in the same concept: that of a defined, artificial entity originally said to be named Majel (after Majel Roddenberry, Gene’s wife and the actress behind Star Trek‘s computer voice). Something went askew before release, however, with Majel blandly re-named “Assistant,” and finally stripped of any name at all, anonymously bundled into Google Now. The result is a voice interface with plenty of capability, but absolutely none of the warmth of Apple’s offering.

Siri’s cooler-than-usual reply, with Google Now’s stark, humorless search results inset.

“But I don’t want some cutesy-coo fake person ‘assisting’ me,” you crow, shuddering at the thought of anything fun or entertaining creeping into your strictly regimented life; “I just want straightforward help when I ask for it.”

Sure, fine. I get that. I don’t agree, but I respect it.

But here’s the thing: Siri does that, too. If you don’t get fancy with her, she won’t get weird with you. You just want reservations at that table at Eastern Standard? She’s on it, without any sass. You wanna know how to get down to The Red Hat in time for trivia? Cool; Siri’s got your directions for you. Siri has a built-in off switch for the kind of talk she busts out for Apple commercials, and that switch is labeled “Just Talk Normal To Me.”

Furthermore, lemme hit you with some anecdotal evidence. My stepfather is one of the most no-nonsense, straight-talking guys there is when it comes to technology. He carries a ThinkPad and a Nextel, and has very little patience for any techno-frills. But just five minutes of watching my mother talk to Siri on her new iPhone 5 broke his brain for days. He’d ask his new Evo 4G LTE, via Google Now, all kinds of questions, and no matter how many times I hammered home the point that you can’t talk to Google like you can talk to Siri, he’d do it anyway. After just a few minutes of watching Siri in action, his default impulse was to treat Google Now as semi-sentient.

It happened to me, too. Good thing Pocketnow has a “no-pants” dress code.

To be fair to Android, Google Now is a very new feature, and it’s also a very awesome one – one which I found important enough to label a key reason why you should think twice before leaving the Android ecosystem. After that software update mentioned above, its voice interface works exceedingly well; I was surprised to find today that even talking to it in Siri-like complete sentences now yields success much of the time. Even when it doesn’t “get me,” the Google results it throws up as a Hail Mary are usually pretty useful. And the text dictation is absolutely top-notch. Overall, I adore it.

But it is still an it. I have no emotional attachment to the voice interface monitor listening behind the Google Now card view, and I’d wager that neither do most “normal” people. Showing Google Now to my mother, the ultimate example of a techno-apathetic, on Christmas Day resulted in precisely one one-hundredth the interest that Siri has. That’s not necessarily an automatic condemnation of Google’s product, but it’s definitely not a feather in its cap, either. And considering the company’s continuing appeals to buyers’ emotions in its advertisements, some of them featuring Google Now quite heavily, giving the service a voice -any voice- would at least be a start. Adding some personality is, in my opinion, the next logical step.

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