Despite flaws, voice search has potential
ANICK JESDANUNDOVER, Ohio - I never thought I'd be telling my phone what to do. But I often find myself talking to various digital assistants — Siri on the iPhone and Google Now on Android devices — to request driving directions, restaurant recommendations and answers to all sorts of nagging questions.
Published: March 10, 2013
Published: March 10, 2013
Until recently, I harbored a small prejudice against this kind of voice technology. I've long been annoyed by automated phone systems that make you speak instructions rather than enter them with a touch-tone phone.
Even when smartphones started letting you search the Web with voice commands, my instinct was to stick with typing, however awkward touch-screen keyboards became.
My attitude slowly changed. A key turning point came during a 230-mile drive from Charleston, W.Va., to visit friends outside Cleveland. I needed to pick up wine for my hosts and was pleased when Siri found a winery in Dover, Ohio. The shop was about 50 miles away from where I was, but relatively close to the highway I was on.
A traditional search might have located places that were closer in distance, but more out of the way. More importantly, I was able to perform that search while cruising on the highway.
Of course, neither Siri nor Google Now is flawless. During the course of my trip, Siri responded to a request for directions to Marygate Drive with a list of movie theaters named Mary. Google Now tried to look up "Fort museum" rather than the Ford museum. As for that search for wine shops, one of Siri's recommendations was about 120 miles away in the wrong direction.
But if you don't need perfection, both Siri and Google Now are decent assistants, especially considering that typing on small touch-screen keyboards can be frustrating.
Siri is chattier — and feistier — than Google Now. She'll always respond with something, whereas Google Now often gives you no more than a list of websites, as if you'd just conducted a regular Web search. Only occasionally does Google Now give you a spoken-aloud response.
Ask for the assistant's name on the iPhone, and she responds, "My name is Siri, but you know that already." Google, being Google, responds with websites with "What is your name?" in them.
Siri excels with restaurants, in part because of Apple's partnerships with the reviews site Yelp and restaurant-reservation service OpenTable. Ask for Italian restaurants, and Siri offers you several — with information on price range, average user ratings on Yelp and distance from your current location. Ask for GOOD Italian restaurants, and Siri sorts those restaurants by rating.
Google Now sometimes gives me a link to OpenTable or information from Google-owned Zagat, but other requests simply lead to restaurants' websites and paid ads.
What's clear from my test is that we're just at the beginning of seeing what voice search and virtual assistants can do.