I find it funny how the Android community works sometimes. First, everyone got steamed because Apple released Siri into the wild, a voice-based interface to use your mobile phone. Immediately, the community raged and claimed that “we did it first” because of Android’s voice commands. Once it was realized that it wasn’t really command-based it was a natural language interface, a ton of people on my Google+ laughed and said “who wants to talk to their phone?” And, lo and behold, not even a week later the Android community began it’s search for the “Siri for Android”. First came Iris, a cheap imitation that was boasted to have been made in 8 hours. Hurray! But, unfortunately (and quite obviously) it couldn’t even do a quarter of what Siri could do. Then we claimed that Vlingo, probably the best voice-command interface in Android, was our answer to Siri. Followed by many other apps. Ugh. Sorry, guys – but Apple beat Android to the punch on this one, and we shouldn’t laugh at it, rage about it, or deny it.
Firstly, I want to say this: Android blogs (and fans alike) need to stop trying to look for a Siri alternative for Android. Siri aims to be a natural-language assistant, which none of these “alternatives” are; they’re all voice-command based applications. Yeah, developers can try and make multiple statements work for the same command, but it’s still not natural. It’s all speech-to-text (using Google’s APIs) followed by jumping to a function based on the string the application gets. That’s not what Apple aims for Siri to be. They’re using some well developed AI to make sure it actually understands what you’re saying rather than just parsing through some text. There is nothing for Android that does this yet, so stop trying to play the “us-too” card. Android does not have a Siri yet, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I applaud Apple for taking this step because I think it’s a necessary one.
That being said, Siri hardly works most of the time, at least in my experience. It’s still really beta software, and it’s a surprise Apple even put it on the 4S, marketing ploy or not. From watching them for so long, it’s clear that Apple only puts software that really works well with their hardware, and rarely puts (or even allows) flawed features. Siri doesn’t follow that path, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. We shouldn’t snide at it, Android fan or not. I can’t see myself using it very often, but it’s an interesting take at how we interact with our devices. In fact, I believe it’s a big step towards a next-generation natural user interface. With Microsoft pushing really accurate motion sensing in Kinect and Apple starting to lay the stepping stones for a proper voice-based interface, we’re going to have some really, really powerful interactions with our devices very soon.
But what about Google? Should they make a natural-language assistant? Well, let’s look at the variables here. Their voice-to-text is impeccable, and Ice Cream Sandwich further proves this point. Google Search is still easily the best search engine. In fact, I just put in a search for “what’s that movie where the guy has a short-term memory“, and boom – Memento is the top item. Android has become the most popular OS across the US and Android devices are being released faster than we can say “Google Plus”, so the market is definitely there. Let’s not forget that with Google TV, having a voice assistant could be a huge shift in the way we look for entertainment. With the massive amount of data Google has stashed away, they can make a Siri 2.0 before Apple can get Siri out of beta.
Like I said before – I can’t see myself speaking to my phone like that. Then again, there was a time where I claimed I could never browse the internet on my phone, or would never need more than a 1Ghz processor. So, yeah – there’s that. Taking that all in, I say yes: Google needs to step up and create a voice assistant simply because it would be awesome to have something that powerful in open source. Now we just need to convince Andy Rubin and the squad to do it. Until then, please stop claiming we have Siri “alternatives”.
Additional Post-Publish Note: Let’s also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be up to Google to create a complete voice-based interface. The openness of the framework allows for any app to plugin and interact with the OS, so any company with deep knowledge of AI can pull this off without any collaboration with Google.