Siri vs. Google Now: Who wins the AI cat fight?

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Fight!
Fight!

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2Every mobile platform now ships with its very own virtual assistant, and while they all offer a similar set of basic features, Google Now and Siri are way ahead of their rivals. Google Now knows what you want and when you want it, but Siri has sass and personality, and is about to get a whole lot better with the help of Proactive.

If you were to pit the two against each other in a virtual ring, which one would come out wearing the belt? Join us as we find out in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac!

Killian-FNFKillian Bell (Writer, Cult of Android): Siri certainly kicked off the trend in 2011, but I think most would agree it’s nowhere near as good as Google Now four years on.

What I really love about Google Now is that it “just works” — as you would expect an Apple product to. Once it is setup, it’s always working in the background and ready when you need it. With just one swipe from your home screen on Android, Google Now is there with an abundance of useful, timely information.

Whether you need details on an upcoming flight, travel information for your next meeting, the closest coffee shop, or just last night’s sports scores, Google Now has it all. And most of the time, you don’t even need to ask for it; it’s just there, waiting for you.

Siri can find you a coffee shop and fetch sports scores, too, of course — but only if you ask for it. And who really wants to do that in public?

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl (Writer, Cult of Mac): Ah, how the tables have turned, Killian. Isn’t it usually the Google lot complaining about Apple ‘borrowing’ features that have been around on Android for years before Apple comes along and perfects them?

In the case of Siri, this was something Apple debuted on the iPhone 4s, based on a concept Apple had, somewhat amazingly, predicted correctly — virtually to the month — 25 years earlier with the Knowledge Navigator. Google has certainly done a lot with Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana is surprisingly good, but there’s still something about Siri that has captured people’s imagination.

And it’s only going to become more relevant from here.

Siri made its debut on the iPhone 4s almost four years ago.
Siri made its debut on the iPhone 4s almost four years ago.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Killian-FNFKB: So, your only defense for Siri is that it came first, and Apple says it’s going to get better?

I don’t really care how long Siri has been around for, or what its origins are. My point is, it’s now lagging far behind Google Now. The only thing I ever use Siri for is to set a timer when my hands are dirty — like when I’m cooking. It only understands me half of the time, so I avoid using it for anything else.

Google Now, on the other hand, is always useful. Even if I don’t want to talk to it, it’s there with the information I want at just the right time. I can customize its “cards” to show all the things that are important to me, and to block those that aren’t.

You say Siri is going to get better, and I know that with Proactive in iOS 9, it will become more useful. But it will be years before it’s on par with Google Now — if it ever catches up. Initially, I can see it being about as useful as Apple Maps was when that first launched. Some things will work, others won’t, and when you really need it it’ll let you down.

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: No, it’s not just saying the technology’s going to get better — but that we haven’t started to see the extent of Siri’s possible applications. But we can get onto that.

Firstly, I’ll admit Google Now has some very nifty features, but I think you’re downplaying Siri’s strengths. I generally find Siri to be faster than Google Now when it comes to answering questions, and I rarely have a problem with it misunderstanding me.

I know Google likes to take itself seriously, but would it have killed the folks at Google to add a bit of a personality, too? Do you remember the New York Times story from late last year, with the 13-year-old autistic boy who Siri had helped with their communication skills? You’re not going to ever hear that about Google Now. Siri is also vastly superior when it comes to accuracy in different languages, if that’s something that matters to you.

The biggest issue I have with Google Now, though, is the same one I have with a lot of Google’s products: the creepy factor. Siri isn’t scanning all of your correspondence constantly to feed back to an advertising company. Google Now is.

Right now I use Siri for getting directions, setting notifications and reminders, dictating messages, and occasionally searching for bits of trivia. More often than not, I’m very happy with the results. And I don’t have to worry about security while I’m doing it.

Killian-FNFKB: You can say Siri is faster than Google Now, but there’s no evidence for that. I’ve always found both to be incredibly snappy with a good connection. Google Now has plenty of personality, too; a quick YouTube search will return countless videos that demonstrate its playful side, and various Easter eggs.

But onto the important stuff.

Everyone has to use the “creepy” card against Google, and for the most part, it’s a lot of scaremongering about things we really don’t need to be scared about. Google isn’t interested in your dirty secrets, and it’s definitely not selling them to anyone.

Find me one story about a person who’s had their identity stolen as a direct result of Google’s business model, and I’ll give you this point. But you won’t be able to. And in case it hasn’t crossed your mind yet, Apple will have to do exactly the same “scanning” of your emails and calendars and other data to make Proactive anywhere near as useful as Google Now.

Google Now knows what you want and when you want it.
Google Now knows what you want and when you want it.
Photo: Google

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: You deny that there’s any creepy factor to a company that scans all your documents, search results and emails, and uses this information to sell you things? I think you and I have different stances on privacy.

Now that you bring up Proactive, however, I should point out that that’s certainly going to be a game changer in many ways. Added contextual information is going to be the biggest improvement to Siri we’ve had since the very start. It’s not going to be the final one, though.

With an upcoming Apple TV refresh and HomeKit demonstrating Apple’s ambition for the smart home — both areas Siri is rumored to be front and center of our interactions — I think we’ll look back on these early days of Siri as an iPhone extra the same way we look at Usenet groups in the age of Web 2.0: as the merest hint of what was to come.

I’m really pleased we’re seeing so many companies do good things in the area of virtual assistants. Facebook is said to be getting in on the act, too, and let’s not forget startups like Viv Labs — which includes some of the names who worked on Siri back when it was its own company.

Google Now is a product Google can be proud of. But it’s no Siri, and the next couple of years are going to hammer home that fact.

Killian-FNFKB: I’m not denying Google uses the information to tailor the ads it shows us; I’m saying we shouldn’t be so concerned about it. Lots of other companies do exactly the same thing. Why is it any different to Amazon suggesting products based on the things you’ve searched for and purchased before?

What’s funny is that I know you use Gmail, so you can’t be that concerned with Google services. Why are you so against Google Now, which only feeds from other Google products just like Gmail and Calendar?

You seem to have missed the bit where I pointed out that Proactive would need to feed off your data in the same way that Google Now does to provide similar services. Apple won’t sell any of it to advertisers, but it will be “scanning” it in similar ways — Proactive simply wouldn’t work without that.

I’m glad you’re excited about the features that will come with Proactive, but again, they’re things you can already find in Google Now. It can already control your Nest thermostat, and with the help of an app like Tasker, you can set it up to interact with every other home automation gadget you have.

While we’re on the subject of “game changers,” I feel it would be a good time to mention Now on Tap, which is going to make Google Now even more incredible, and even more accessible. There’s nothing like it on iOS, and I’m almost certain there won’t be for a very long time.

With that said, I think every Android user is perfectly happy that Google Now is “no Siri.”

Proactive in iOS 9.
Proactive in iOS 9.
Photo: Apple

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: You make some good points. Ultimately, I want all of these services to improve. Siri’s not perfect, but the fact that it’s so integrated with an ecosystem I’m already invested in and plugged into — and is about to become even more central — is very appealing to me. It does everything I want, and is about to do more. What say you we leave this one up to the readers?