My Next Phone: Virtual Assistants

Virtual Assistants have been around in the computing world for a while, but they’re now also available on smartphones. A virtual assistant is supposed to take the smartphone experience to a whole new level, organising your day and reminding you with alerts about appointments in your calendar, weather reports and news headlines.

The many variants of assistants offer different services, and some of them are better than others. Some are more friendly, while others can give you a detailed response to a query instead of pointing you to a web search.

Although I’ve personally never used Virtual Assistants, save for the occasional tomfoolery when getting a new phone and discovering its features, I can see why many people use them.

Virtual Assistants have come a long way since the days of Clippy on Microsoft’s Works suite on a computer. Apple debuted Siri back on the iPhone 4S, and since then, the popularity of Virtual Assistants has grown.

Here, I’ll quickly look at some of the main examples, although it should be noted that there are many alternatives, including small lesser-known apps such as Assistant.ai, and also more popular assistants, downloadable from various app stores, such as Robin, Dragon by Nuance, and Jarvis.

Siri

Siri is possibly the better known variant, and appears on Apple’s iPhones. She’s gained a lot of publicity, from TV advert skits to cameos on comedies like The Big Bang Theory.

Siri was first introduced as an app on the App Store by Siri Inc. There were plans for the Siri app to appear on other phone platforms such as Android and Windows, but these were halted upon Apple’s acquisition of the app. As such, the Siri app was withdrawn from the App Store, and the iPhone 4S was the first phone to receive Siri integrated into the phone’s operating system as part of an update to iOS 5 in October 2011.

Although the earlier iPhone 4 and iPod Touch 4G did not officially receive Siri when updating to iOS 5, a legal port was created and distributed on Cydia by independent developers, who bypassed Apple’s Siri servers by creating a backend using APIs from Google and Wolfram Alpha. Access to the Siri port required the user to jailbreak their device, before heading into Cydia, the marketplace for iPhone repos and tweaks.

The original Siri app was integrated into services such as StubHub, OpenTable, Google Maps, MovieTickets and TaxiMagic, and used voice recognition technology from Nuance, developers of the highly popular Dragon dictation software. A feature of Siri was to adapt to the individual user’s searches and language usage to offer a truly unique and personal service.

As my iPod Touch 4G was never officially supported, I haven’t had a lot of experience with Siri. I was unaware of the Siri app at the time, and as such, my experience with Siri has since been limited to my use of iPhones in my local electronics store. Despite jailbreaking my ‘iTouch’ on numerous occasions, and installing Siri ports through Cydia, I found that some of these ports weren’t as good as the real thing, and I had to rely on YouTube videos and trips to my local technology store to enjoy the real Siri for all her pros and cons.

That said, even though Siri is only available for iPhones, she/he/it still remains one of the best assistants out there, although Siri wouldn’t be the sole reason for me switching from Android to iOS if I were ever to make the transition.

Google Now (on Tap)

Like Siri, but only available through Google Search or via the Home button on Android phones, Google Now is very useful, and presents information in a ‘Cards’ format, which is now central to the Google search experience.

Whenever I’ve used Google Now, results have always been quick and to the point. It’s always been relatively easy to add events to my calendar, as has adding or removing weather reports or alerts for certain news stories.

That said, I’ve never really found the use for a Virtual Assistant.

Cortana

Microsoft’s contribution, initially only available on the Windows platform but now downloadable as an app on Android and iOS, is named after the Master Chief’s AI friend in Halo, the video game that was almost solely responsible for confirming the Xbox as a reputable game console opposite Sony’s Playstation.

It seems fitting, therefore, that Cortana is the name of their Virtual Assistant, as Cortana ties-in with the new-world branding of Microsoft. Even the same voice actor was used for the American variant of Cortana.

Microsoft Cortana

On my Windows Phone, I enjoyed how much more human Cortana was than Siri ever seemed to be. Although I’ve mentioned my limited experience with Siri, I’ve watched a lot of comparison videos on YouTube and played around with Cortana myself. When I’ve used Cortana, she seems a lot more down to earth and natural in how she answers a query. She’s less robotic than Siri. Cortana even has more of a personality than Siri and Google Now put together. Ask Cortana to sing a song or tell a joke, and she’ll do just that, with often amusing results. Ask Siri or Google Now to do tell you a joke, and they’ll direct you to a web search on jokes websites.

The Evolution of Cortana in the Halo games

The Evolution of Cortana in the Halo games

When it comes to actual, real world practically, on the whole Cortana performs well, although there is the odd request that results in a web search or an “I didn’t understand” error. As this article by MakeUseOf explains, cross-platform availability is possibly Cortana’s biggest appeal and is integrated into Windows 10, which means you can send a text or make a call from your laptop or PC, similar to the Siri experience between an iPhone and a Mac.

Plus, Cortana can be downloaded as an app for Android and iOS and, on Android at least (in my experience), can even replace Google Now as the default assistant. Cortana even makes it easier to use some of Microsoft’s services, now that the Office suite has been made available for mobile in the form of the apps Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and Outlook among others.

S Voice

S Voice is Samsung’s contribution to the world of virtual assistants. Personally I’ve never used S Voice, even though I have it on my Samsung tablet. It’s more of an annoyance than a useful feature, although I shall report my findings in my review of the S7, which will be uploaded shortly.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant, though available in the Allo messaging app, will only be available as an integrated part of the Android OS on Android 7 Nougat for the new Pixel and Pixel XL devices (however, it has been said that Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge might get Google Assistant as well).

Google Assistant in the Allo app on my phone

Google Assistant in the Allo app on my phone

Google Assistant seems to be a useful feature, and I can certainly see its benefits, but as it’s currently only available through Allo, an app I’ve rarely used since launch, my experience using the assistant is limited – alongside my rare usage of the Messenger bot/assistant created by Facebook.

If Google Assistant is anywhere near as useful as Google Now, then it should be a promising future rival to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Which Assistant is Best?

As I said before, I have rarely found the use for a Virtual Assistant, and often ignore the feature where I should probably use it. Personally, the idea of talking to my phone is rather frightening, especially in public where people may think I’m talking to myself. I’m often able to get things done quickly without requiring the assistance of an assistant, and don’t think I’ll be needing the services of one any time soon.

That said, if I ever did require such services, I’m leaning towards Cortana, the Dragon app by Nuance, or the independent assistant Robin, which has been around for a few years now.

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