I never thought I'd be telling my phone what to do. But I often find
myself talking to various digital assistants - Siri on the iPhone and
Google Now on Android devices - to request driving directions,
restaurant recommendations and answers to all sorts of nagging
Until recently, I harbored a small prejudice against this
kind of voice technology. I've long been annoyed by automated phone
systems that make you speak instructions rather than enter them with a
touch-tone phone. These technologies tend to hear me incorrectly and
slow me down as I try to make a train reservation or check my credit
card account. I also feel odd talking to my phone, rather than with a
Even when smartphones started letting you search the
Web with voice commands, my instinct was to stick with typing, however
awkward touch-screen keyboards became.
My attitude slowly changed.
A key turning point came during a 230-mile (370-kilometer) drive from
Charleston, West Virginia, to visit friends outside Cleveland. I needed
to pick up wine for my hosts and was pleased when Siri found a winery in
Dover, Ohio. The shop was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from
where I was, but relatively close to the highway I was on.
traditional search might have located places that were closer in
distance, but more out of the way. More importantly, I was able to
perform that search while cruising on the highway. (Yeah, I know I
shouldn't be doing that, but using voice commands beats typing while
Of course, neither Siri nor Google Now is flawless.
During the course of my trip, Siri responded to a request for directions
to Marygate Drive with a list of movie theaters named Mary. Google Now
tried to look up "Fort museum" rather than the Ford museum. As for that
search for wine shops, one of Siri's recommendations was about 120 miles
(190 kms) away in the wrong direction. It took a few tries to find
choices closer to my route.
Internet connections for the most part -even for tasks that don't
involve looking up anything, such as setting the alarm on your phone.
The exception is Google Now's ability to make phone calls anytime by
saying "Call Tom" or another name on your contact list, but in those
times when you don't have a data connection, you're not likely to have
voice service, either.
But if you don't need perfection, both Siri
and Google Now are decent assistants, especially considering that
typing on small touch-screen keyboards can be frustrating.
chattier - and feistier - than Google Now. She'll always respond with
something, whereas Google Now often gives you no more than a list of
websites, as if you'd just conducted a regular Web search. Only
occasionally does Google Now give you a spoken-aloud response.
for the assistant's name on the iPhone, and she responds, "My name is
Siri, but you know that already." Google, being Google, responds with
websites with "What is your name?" in them.
The digital assistants
offered two very different responses when I asked: "Why is it too
cold?" Google Now's list of websites starts with one on biking in cold
weather. Siri speaks out the current temperature and shows me a graphic
with forecast for the next several hours, while insisting, "I don't find
that particularly cold."
I had the most fun asking both about the
meaning of life. Predictably, Google Now returns links to a bunch of
websites, plus an ad on top for the Mormon church. Siri is armed with
more than a dozen witty responses. One is "42," a punch line from the
novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Another time, she tells me
it's chocolate. Yet another, she responds with a dictionary definition
Siri excels with restaurants, in part because of Apple's
partnerships with the reviews site Yelp and restaurant-reservation
service OpenTable. Ask for Italian restaurants, and Siri offers you
several - with information on price range, average user ratings on Yelp
and distance from your current location. Ask for GOOD Italian
restaurants, and Siri sorts those restaurants by rating.
reservations, and Siri gives you a few choices with open spots, whether
you're looking for something tomorrow night or this weekend. Just tap on
one to complete the reservation through OpenTable.
sometimes gives me a link to OpenTable or information from Google-owned
Zagat, but other requests simply lead to restaurants' websites and paid
As for movies, both will give you movie showtimes and let you
buy tickets, though for tickets iPhone users will need a free software
update to iOS 6.1, which came out in late January. In addition, Siri can
only buy tickets through Fandango, not MovieTickets or other rivals.
correctly give me latest sports scores, though I stumped Google Now
when I asked how a particular team was doing. Google Now simply gives me
the latest score, while Siri tells me where the team is in the
standings. When I asked about the Detroit Lions a few months ago, she
preceded the response with "Uh, oh." I chuckled at the phone when I
heard that. The Lions finished the 2012 NFL regular season in last place
in the NFC North division.
Siri is better at integrating with the
phone's calendar and alarm clock. When I ask for an alarm for "tomorrow
night at 7," Siri tells me she can't set anything more than a day
ahead, while Google Now simply sets one. Imagine the embarrassment
should my alarm clock go off while out with friends at a show.
asked Siri whether I'm free on Monday. In a recent reply, she said my
calendar is clear, while Google Now gave me a website discussing
"murder-free Monday." Google Now is smarter, though, in creating a
calendar reminder for movie plans with Tony, as Siri stumbles trying to
find a movie called "plans with Tony." She does successfully create one
for dinner with Tony, after warning of a conflict on my schedule.
is better with answering such questions as who won the Oscars for best
picture in 1996 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize. As usual, Google Now
returns standard Web results.
Both directly answered me when I
asked when Memorial Day is. Siri added, "I hope you get the day off."
Thanks for looking out for me, Siri.
What I also like about Siri
is that she's always a click away - just tap on the home button on the
iPhone. Google Now is like a disappearing act: Sometimes you see its
search box and the microphone button; sometimes you don't.
By now, you might be wondering, why bother with Google Now?
Siri performs better in many situations, Google Now isn't bad if you
have an Android device. Apple has had more time to refine its service,
as Siri has been around for more than a year - and longer as a startup
before Apple bought it. Google Now made its debut over the summer in
phones running the Jelly Bean version of Android, and it continually
gets new capabilities.
In addition, Google Now does more than
voice search. Over time, it's supposed to know about your interests and
give you information without asking. If you have the necessary
permissions turned on, you can search for a sports team on a desktop
computer and find the latest score waiting for you on the phone after
the game. Walk by a movie theater and see showtimes automatically pop
up. Commute along a certain route each day, and Google Now will check
traffic and offer alternative driving directions when appropriate.
Google Now isn't wise enough to figure out that I typically take public
transit in New York and don't even own a car. I had to set that
manually. And Google doesn't have a good way to distinguish a casual
search about a company from actual interest in automatically getting its
stock price at the end of the day.
What's clear from my test is that we're just at the beginning of seeing what voice search and virtual assistants can do.
easy to get caught up on the mistakes these services make interpreting
our voices. But Siri and Google Now are enticing enough that I can't
wait to see what they do in the months and years ahead.