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Since Apple released Siri, competitors have developed voice command systems, often with superior features, but they still fall short of the original

A woman uses 'Siri', the iPhone's voice-activated assistant technology. A woman uses "Siri", the iPhone's voice-activated assistant technology. (Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 2, 2012
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People are never satisfied, thank goodness. Back when Apple Inc. unveiled its Siri voice command system for the iPhone 4S, so many of us gibbered with delight over its power, its sophistication, even its sense of humor. But over time, users have become well aware of its flaws and limitations, and are hungry for something better.

It’s coming, too. Apple’s iOS 6 software upgrade, due out this fall, will include a substantial Siri overhaul. But in the meantime, there’s competition. Some new devices running Google Inc.’s Android operating system offer features that match and occasionally exceed Siri’s abilities. There’s Google Now, one of the sharpest features in Google’s very good Nexus 7 tablet. And Samsung has whipped up a Siri substitute called S Voice that’s available on the company’s superb Galaxy S III smartphone.

I’m impressed with both Android offerings, even though neither of them could pass the Zooey Deschanel test. She’s the actress in the Apple TV ads, the one who asks Siri to find restaurants that deliver tomato soup. Siri aced that question, but both S Voice and Google Now had problems with it.

The Androids did better on Deschanel’s question about whether it was raining. Google Now replied that it wasn’t, just as Siri did. And S Voice simply displayed the latest weather report.

All three systems had no trouble with a spoken command to play some music. In the ad, Zooey asked for “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” I settled for some big-band tunes from Cab Calloway. Either way, mission accomplished.

Nobody should be surprised to see Android catching up so quickly. A recent study by the financial firm Piper Jaffray threw 1,600 questions at Siri and got correct answers less than two-thirds of the time, compared with 86 percent accuracy for typed Google searches.

Now Samsung’s S Voice has integrated speech control with other software apps, so users can add appointments to the calendar or look up a name in the phone’s address book with a few spoken words. S Voice can also launch any app on the phone, so you no longer have to scroll through pages of icons. For example, you can just say, “Launch Netflix,” and up it pops. Ask the same of Siri, and it can’t oblige.

Apple plans to fix that in iOS 6, but it will have more trouble matching Google’s expertise in understanding the meanings of questions. Unlike Apple, Google owns a huge database of questions and answers from its Internet search service. It analyzes those billions of queries and results to get better at giving people what they really want.

You can see the advantage Google has. Say “Red Sox schedule” to Siri, and then try it with Google Now. Siri sees the word “schedule” and asks if you want to make an appointment. But Google understands what sports fans are looking for, so Google Now displays an electronic “card” showing the next scheduled Red Sox game.

Apple says iOS 6 will include a similar feature. But Google Now does more. After I asked about the Red Sox, a game schedule card started to appear every time I ran the software. I no longer have to ask for it; it just happens.

Another example: My calendar includes an appointment at Boston City Hall. Google Now not only pops up a reminder, it also displays estimated travel time and offers driving directions. Siri will give you the same information if you ask for it, but Google Now just does it.

Still, Siri substitutes can be frustrating, mainly because each lacks some useful feature Siri fans take for granted. S Voice, for instance, doesn’t let you compose e-mails by voice, something you can do easily in Siri and more clumsily in Google Now. On the other hand, Google Now wouldn’t let me add appointments to my Google Calendar, which you can do in S Voice.

Besides, S Voice is a Samsung product and not available for other phone brands, while Google Now is available only to users of the newest version of Android software, called Jelly Bean. What’s needed is a single product to combine the best features of each. That’s supposed to happen later this year, with the release of Google Assistant. By then we’ll have the new and improved Siri as well. Our hip pockets will be smarter than ever. But still not smart enough to satisfy us, thank goodness.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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