After Apple bought Siri a few years ago, many assumed it was the company's first step in a battle against Google's search business. It was a good assumption.
But at All Things D's D8 conference in 2010, Steve Jobs tried to put that speculation to rest by saying Apple had slightly different plans for Siri.
"[It's] not a search company. They're an AI company. We have no plans to go into the search business. We don't care about it. Other people do it well," Jobs told Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg.
Jobs was mostly right. Siri launched on the iPhone 4S in October as more of an intelligent virtual assistant than a searching tool. Siri is designed to set reminders, send text messages, make appointments, etc. Search is kind of part of Siri, but it relies heavily on Wolfram Alpha, a "knowledge engine" that usually does a great job at answering oddball questions like "What's the GDP of Greece?" but not so great at pulling up queries normal humans need.
That's why I was so excited when Google announced Google Now, a search-centric, voice-powered digital assistant for the upcoming version of Android called Jelly Bean.
I've been using Jelly Bean on a Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 for the last few days. And I can say Google Now is a lot more impressive than Siri. Google Now fills in all the gaps left by Siri, and does pretty much everything else a whole lot better. This is how search should work on mobile devices.
A few examples:
- I was in San Francisco last week to cover Google I/O and meet with some other companies in the area. I had a meeting in Mountain View on Friday morning. Google Now sent me a notification about 45 minutes before my meeting that said I should leave if I wanted to make it on time. It even took traffic into account. Incredible.
- The other night I was getting dinner with a few old journalism friends from college. We were talking about Jim Romenesko, and one of my friends wondered how old he was. I asked Google Now, "How old is Jim Romenesko?" The answer came up in less than a second.
- I'm a Mets fan (unfortunately), so a lot of my sports-related Google searches are for the score of the latest game. Google knows this, so Google Now automatically sends me notifications with the latest score. I don't even have to ask anymore.
- I took the red eye back to New York Friday night, and spent the hours before my flight drinking with some PR friends in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood. Based on my search history, Google Now already knew my flight number and kept me updated with gate information and potential delays.
And Google Now is fast. I spoke with Hugo Barra, Google's Android product boss, the other day, and he told me the Google Now team spent months shaving seconds off the response time. It shows. Not only is Google Now better than Siri at pulling up relevant information, but it's also nearly instantaneous.
Compare that speed to Siri. Depending on how well Apple's servers are doing on a given day, it can take several painful seconds for Siri to pull up an answer.
Google Now is exactly what I want in a virtual assistant. I don't need cutesy jokes and quips about which smartphone is the best. I need answers. And Google Now provides me with the answers I want. The end. (Sometimes I don't even have to ask. Google Now just knows what I need. Incredible.)
Now before all the Apple fans start skewering me in the comments, a few points:
- Yes, I understand Siri is still in beta. But the truth of the matter is Apple doesn't promote it as a beta product. It's the flagship feature of it's top-of-the-line iPhone 4S. Just look at all those celebrity-packed commercials. It doesn't come off as a beta product, does it?
- I also understand Siri will get a lot better with the launch of iOS 6, Apple's new mobile operating system, this fall. Siri will be able to give you sports scores, movie times, restaurant reviews, and more.
- As I've been testing Google Now, I posted a few tweets about my experience. The response from Apple fans has mostly been "Yeah, well, Siri has personality! And people like that!" I'm guessing they're talking about Siri's ability to tell jokes and provide some witty back talk. Yes, that's pretty cool, and I'm sure Siri users get a big old kick out of it, but it's not useful.
As good as Google Now is, there's a huge, gaping problem. As I've written a million times before, Google and its hardware and carrier partners are notoriously awful at providing timely updates for Android devices. Jelly Bean launches in mid July, yet only about 7% of devices are running Ice Cream Sandwich, the current version of Android that launched about seven months ago. Almost everyone else is running Gingerbread, a version of Android that launched in late 2010.
At this rate, it'll be at least another year before most Android users get to take advantage of Google Now. Meanwhile Apple continues to sell tens of millions of Siri-powered iPhone 4Ss per quarter. Even though I think Siri is an inferior product, more people are going to be using it. And that gives Apple a huge advantage over Google.
And that stinks. iPhone users have no idea what they're missing. Android users probably won't get to try Google Now until they buy a new phone that comes pre-loaded with Jelly Bean.
I have no doubt that Apple will add better search features to Siri over time. But what most people won't realize is that Google has already beaten Siri with Google Now.
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