Getting Personal: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana

Category: Mobile , Privacy

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.

Siri, Google Now and Cortana

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's Cortana

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...

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Most recent comments on "Getting Personal: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana"

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

I barely use Siri. Actually it quit working at all for a month and I hardly noticed unless I wanted to call someone when driving -- that's about the ONLY reason I use it. Talk to text is just terrible..I have no real discernible accent -- middle America all the way. And it IS creepy if it's always listening -- is Siri always listening? I don't know.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

I googled Cortana like you suggested. Images very creepy and some even inappropriate. Thanks for the warning.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

Thank you for informing me of the existence of "Cortana".
I am a true Windows person but I have been resisting to recommend WindowsPhone as Microsoft if too far behind Apple and Android phones in both hardware technologies and lack of a built-in PDA within their smartphone offerings (that are pretty slim to begin with).
Few years back, my nephew told Siri to remind him to take the garbage out when he is leaving his apartment and I was impressed that the minute we walked out, Siri dinged him for forgetting to take the garbage out!

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

Thank you for informing me of the existence of "Cortana".
I am a true Windows person but I have been resisting to recommend WindowsPhone as Microsoft if too far behind Apple and Android phones in both hardware technologies and lack of a built-in PDA within their smartphone offerings (that are pretty slim to begin with).
Few years back, my nephew told Siri to remind him to take the garbage out when he is leaving his apartment and I was impressed that the minute we walked out, Siri dinged him for forgetting to take the garbage out!

Posted by:

Robert Kemper
07 Mar 2014

I'm fairly sure that many users will enjoy the advance of helpful information of the PDA's, but
personally I'd rather not have them so eager to stick their noses that far into my personal likes and dislikes.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2014

What ever they name it they will change the name a year from now. They change the name of everything they produce.

Posted by:

Elizabeth Landry
07 Mar 2014

If I do research for the solution to a problem, I don't want my computer to remind me I have that problem constantly day and night.

Posted by:

Gloria Huffman
07 Mar 2014

Bob, what bothers me about voice recognition is the voice-changing software that was invented (commercialized) around 1998. (Cf. AV Voice Changer Software Diamond) If somebody wants to make a recording that uses my voiceprint to enter commands I don't authorize, it could be bad for me.

Can it happen? Yes, easily. I called a radio talk show host in 2012 and tried to disguise my voice, but lapsed into my normal voice with the non-host after my on-air segment ended. The topic was political. When the iPod showed up on the host's website several days later, I listened to it and was shocked to hear my normal voice throughout. Not only that, but I "said" things I didn't say, and the host talked over some of my most important points. All in the interest of pushing the guy he wanted to run on the Republican ticket. (And I gave my real name and address in order to get the free book!)

Not only could he or someone there harvest my voice (they did!), but anyone anywhere could conceivably secretly tape-record your voice and then target you for your smartphone or whatever.

Posted by:

09 Mar 2014

As with anything ... There is good and there is bad, to it!!! Nothing is every 100% good or bad, it is always combination of both.

Voice Recognition basically, is a very useful technology. I wonder, just how many people realize that Doctors use Voice Recognition daily, when at their office or their hospital(s). In most modern hospitals and doctor offices ... The days of Medical Transcription is gone! So, when the doctors make a vocal recording of the progress of their patients ... They are using some kind of Voice Recognition software, so that a "print out" of that recording, can be done, when it becomes necessary.

Yes, there are some Medical Transcriptionists, still out there working, but, they are soon to become extinct, in the Medical Field. It really is a shame, too. Voice Recognition software, is responsible for ending many, many Medical Transcriptionists careers and for my youngest daughter, who went to school for Medical Transcriptionist, for 3 years ... Her career never got off the ground, because of Voice Recognition software.

Do I really want this technology for my Smartphone? Overall ... NO! I really, only want to have just a few, simple voice commands ... Like being able to say a name and my phone will dial their number or maybe, a To-Do List, so I can tell myself, that I need to get a few items, from the grocery store ... That's just about it, for my voice commands. I don't want my phone, to start telling me, how to run my life.

I don't really worry, about anyone 'harvesting' my voice or secretly 'record' my cell phone calls. First of all, they would NOT want to hear my cell phone conversations ... They are simple and mundane. Then again ... "They" just might think, I am speaking in code! Yeah ... right! While, I am cautious and cynical ... I also, have the good common sense, to know that I am not paranoid or conspiratorial, in my thinking. :)

Posted by:

Digital Artist
09 Mar 2014

Nothing mobile about it, but I am sure that Yahoo is deliberately delivering spam to my inbox. Maybe because they know I ignore all their ads, so they send me personal letters about hair restoration and larger reproductive organs. These emails are always at the top of the list, just below the very similar looking link to an ad that I always ignore. Marking an email as spam in Yahoo is about as useful as trying to erase the screen with windex.

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