Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Little-Used Voice Assistants Are the Future of Smart Phones


With the imminent arrival of Google's latest Android operating system later this month, Apple's iOS upgrades this fall and Microsoft's relentless push to make Windows relevant to mobile devices, a lot of people are talking about smartphones and tablets. The next few months will also likely see an increasing number of people talking to these devices as well.

Voice assistants such as Siri, which Apple introduced with the iPhone 4S last year, and Google's Voice Actions, which has been available on Android phones for the past couple of years, have thus far been little more than a novelty. Smartphone and tablet users are more comfortable relying on their fingers to navigate touch-screen gadgets, and the quality of voice-activated software has done little to win them over.

This trend is likely to change by the end of the year as the technology improves and phone and tablet makers look for new ways to differentiate their products. Voice-activated search, dictation and other features alone haven't influenced purchasing decisions yet, but those features will become something that consumers expect when buying devices for the year-end holidays, says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with technology research firm Gartner. "If [voice-assistant software] is not there or not done well, it's going to be noticeable," he adds.

With the release of iOS 6 this fall, Apple will broaden Siri's repertoire to include several new languages, among them Spanish, Italian, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. Siri users can also ask the software to update their status on Facebook, post to Twitter or launch apps, and iOS 6 will be available to iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users as a free software update.

Apple has spent a good deal of time and money (presumably Samuel L. Jackson's acting talents don't come cheap) showing off Siri just to let consumers know it's there. "Voice commands are not the natural way people interact with their devices," Gartenberg says, adding that Siri also provided Apple with an important way of distinguishing the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 4.

Google is stepping up its voice-assistant software with the latest version of Android. Also known as Jelly Bean, Android 4.1 features Google Now, which the company claims has faster and more natural voice-search capabilities than previous Android voice-assistant software. "With Google, it's all about driving search on mobile devices," Gartenberg says. "The more people are using Google search on their devices, the better it is for Google. That's where the company makes most of its money."

One key difference between Android and iOS is that Google's voice-search and other software are available on a number of different devices, including the iPhone. Of course, iOS and Siri are available only on Apple products. This arrangement provides Google with some flexibility, but it also means the company is beholden to Samsung, Nokia and device makers when it comes to installing Jelly Bean on their products. Not surprisingly, Google-branded phones—the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus—and the new Nexus 7 tablet will be the first to use Jelly Bean when they begin shipping by the end of July. Since May, Samsung has offered its own voice-activated personal-assistant software called S Voice on the company's Galaxy S III phone, which uses an older version of Android. The Galaxy S III is expected to start using Jelly Bean by the end of the year, a move that could make S Voice expendable.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has been trying get firm footing in the smartphone market, which means voice-activated controls are a must. Fortunately, Microsoft has offered TellMe voice-activated search, dictation and calling as part of its Windows Mobile operating system (now called Windows Phone) since 2009. Ford and Kia also use TellMe software in their automobiles to give their drivers hands-free control of their in-car entertainment systems, phones and rear-view cameras. One of Microsoft's problems has been attracting handset makers of stature, an issue the company began to resolve late last year when Nokia decided to install Windows Phone 7 on its lineup of Lumia phones.

Image courtesy of Apple

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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