Getting Personal: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana
Smartphone personal assistant apps are becoming more involved in our daily lives. They watch, listen, and then offer a variety of information that's supposed to make your life easier. But are they getting a bit TOO personal? Let's look at the offerings from Apple, Google, and some rumors about Microsoft's upcoming personal digital assistant app...
Is Your Personal Digital Assistant Too Helpful?
Back in the mid-1990s, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were a lot like butlers: helpful but passive, discreet and non-threatening. You could tell your Palm Pilot, 'Hold this address for me… Remind me of this appointment (or that birthday)' and it would just do as you told it, without doing anything more.
But today, PDAs are smartphone apps, and sometimes they seem a bit too smart for comfort. Sure, they’re more helpful than old-school PDAs.
When you store someone’s birthday in a modern PDA app, the app may suggest appropriate presents. If you store a lunch appointment, the PDA may suggest restaurants near the site of the appointment. That’s all right, but now PDAs are becoming kind of pushy, like the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme.
Instead of simply responding to your input, a PDA now tries to anticipate what you are going to want or need. To do that, the app must get to know you very, very well… better than you might like. It may track and record your movements so that, for instance, it knows when to give you a traffic report.
It may rifle through your emails and text messages, searching for clues about your interests or current activities so it can scout the Internet to bring you information relevant to you. If you have an appoinment on your calendar, it'll tell you when its time to leave, and map out the best route based on current traffic conditions.
This sort of smothering and hovering may be OK with you; after all, it’s nice to have a faithful servant anticipating your every need. Or you may be a bit creeped out by a piece of software that’s actively probing your life and drawing inferences about what’s on your mind.
Siri and Google Now
There are two major PDA apps in the smartphone arena right now - Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now. Siri runs only on iOS devices, while Google Now is available for Android or iOS. Microsoft is set to roll out a PDA for Windows Phone 8.1 this year; it probably won’t run on any other operating system.
Siri debuted in the late 2000s; its developer was acquired by Apple in 2010. Voice-activated, Siri does its best to understand what you are asking of it and respond appropriately. It can be your intermediary between other apps, i.e., “Siri, call John for me,” or “Siri, what appointments do I have today?” It can find places and provide driving directions on maps, although there have been a few infamous mistakes made. Siri can find and play music for you whether the tunes reside on your iOS device or online.
Google Now was first introduced in Android 4.1 (“Jellybean”). Like Siri, it interprets spoken commands like "Call Jane," "Set alarm for 6 AM," or "Navigate to Lincoln, Nebraska." (See this helpful list of Google Now voice commands.) It also accepts typed input, which can avoid misunderstandings in voice-recognition. Gogole Now presents information you didn’t request but might be interested in: sports scores, weather and traffic reports, sales and special offers at businesses you pass every day, and so on. The information shown to you is selected based on your past searches, movements (as revealed by GPS), email activity, and all else that Google knows about you, including who else you are associated with and what Google knows about them. Tidbits of “suggested information” are presented on pop-up “cards” which you can tap to display more details or swipe away to dismiss.
I have an Android phone, and have noticed that Google Now does some interesting, and usually help things. Recently, I had booked a flight, and it reminded me that it would soon be time to leave for the airport, and oh, did I want to bring up a Google Map for driving directions? A short while later, Google Now told me the flight was delayed. Google Now knows I'm interested in baseball, so it shows me stories about that topic. And during the regular season, it regularly informs me that the Mets lost yet another game after taking a 3-run lead into the 9th inning. Yes, it's poking into my calendar, my email and my recent web searches to do all that. But Google has all that info anyway, so it really doesn't bother me.
Microsoft is late to the smart PDA game, but its first attempt is expected to debut this year. It’s name or (code-name) is “Cortana,” the name of a virtual character in the Microsoft game, “Halo.” I'm betting on code-name. You can search Google for images of Cortana, and you'll see why. Oh, and there's the fact that Cortana goes insane due to information overload. But I digress...
Details on Cortana’s capabilities are scarce, but she is expected to combine aspects of Siri and Google Now. Voice recognition, helpful reminders and suggestions, etc. Microsoft's former CEO spoke of Cortana as “advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world.” Did I mention that Cortana goes insane due to information overload?
Rumor has it that users will be able to specify or restrict what types information the Cortana app can access. It's also believed that Cortana will employ "passive listening," which means you won't have to specifically activate the app to enter voice commands. Like the Moto X phone, it will always be listening for your voice. You might find that convenient, or creepy. Hopefully there will be an on/off switch for that, too.
Microsoft has a checkered history when it comes to helpful avatars. Remember Clippy the paperclip? Microsoft Bob? Ms. Dewey? Let's hope they get it right with Cortana, or whatever they decide to call their personal digitial helper-thingie.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 7 Mar 2014
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Getting Personal: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana (Posted: 7 Mar 2014)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved