Is Siri still steps behind Google’s virtual assistants? [Friday Night Fights]

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Which virtual assistant gets your vote?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple has taken big strides to make Siri even greater in recent years, like bringing it to Apple TV and macOS, and opening it up to third-party developers. In that time, Apple’s virtual assistant has also gotten more accurate and more reliable.

Friday Night Fights bug But some might say third-party alternatives — particularly those from Google — are still a step ahead, with greater features and more flexibility. So, is Apple doing enough to make Siri just as stellar as Google Now and the new Google Assistant?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we go head-to-head over virtual assistants.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: I think Apple’s doing some great things with Siri. I’ve been a bit of a virtual assistant geek for years, so when Apple first announced Siri back in 2011, I was excited to see the company’s 1980s dream of a Knowledge Navigator finally make it to market. But there’s no doubt that, at some point, Google, Microsoft and a select few others began to compete pretty well with Apple. A couple of years back, I think you’d have a decent shot at winning this argument in some ways. Today? No way.

“Hey Siri” has made Siri more useful on our iPhones. Sure, it’s the removal of one button press in favor of a voice command, but it’s had an amazing impact on how much the people I know tend to use it. Voice assistants need to be quickly reactive as well as proactive, and “Hey Siri” makes a big difference. Then there’s the arrival of Siri as an Apple TV interface element and, most recently, popping up on macOS Sierra. These changes make Siri less of a gimmick and more of a major interface element that I can see people using on a daily basis.

Apple’s investment in machine learning has improved the accuracy enormously, and the Siri API means we’re going to see more and more interesting third-party uses in coming months. Plus, Apple’s privacy policy means there’s not the creepy factor of a service like Google Now that knows your business — but in the same way as an unwanted guest in your house looking through your desk drawers does.

Frankly, I think this is one area Apple is really doing some very fine work. I take it you disagree, and everything about Siri is dreadful?

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: Siri certainly made virtual assistants worth using when it made its debut in 2011. No, it wasn’t a revolutionary new idea, but it was the first virtual assistant we actually wanted to bother using, and over the years it has gotten better. But I disagree that it’s the best.

Rival assistants, particularly the new Google Assistant, are more intelligent and more flexible. It has more capabilities, and it’s more open. What’s more, “OK Google” was a thing long before “Hey Siri” came along, and it has been baked into Android TV and other Google platforms for years.

Google’s virtual assistant is also more accessible. It’s not exclusive to Android; you can get it on iOS now with apps like Allo. With upcoming devices, Google Assistant will be available in your living room — without the need to turn on the TV. It also works better with third-party devices and services.

No, I wouldn’t say Siri is dreadful. But I do believe Apple has a lot of catching up to do. You mention that the company is “doing some very fine work,” but it is taking steps that Google and Amazon and others have already taken.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: I see you didn’t address my point about Google and data-mining, which I’m always surprise isn’t something that bothers you too much. For me, it’s a massive plus in Apple’s corner — and I know that I’m not alone in feeling that way. Let me turn it around then and ask what you feel Google does with its virtual assistants that Apple doesn’t? Because it seems to me that, at worst, Apple now offers something that promises the same functionality as Google — only without the data mining and not requiring users to have to run Android if you want to use it, for the most part.

And I’ve already made clear I think Siri is not just hanging in there with Google, but actually bettering it.

What I also like about Siri is the fact that Apple’s ecosystem means you can use it across multiple devices, and that’s only going to increase. Besides, as a serious question, have you tried it with macOS Sierra? Because I think that may change your mind about any perceived limited functionality you think Siri might have.

Finally, I can’t be the only one excited about today’s news that Apple is reportedly busy prototyping a standalone Siri unit to take on the Amazon Echo. Because that just shows where Apple’s emphasis is right now. If Siri, like many virtual assistants, was a gimmick a few years ago, 2016 is the year that’ll prove you wrong.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I didn’t address it because everyone knows Google data mines, and its billions of users suggest that — like me — most people aren’t too concerned about it. Without that data mining, many of Google’s products, including the Assistant and Google Now, would be nowhere near as useful.

We can’t have it both ways, Luke. You can’t expect to have a virtual assistant that automatically updates you on things like your flight, package status, sports scores, and lots, lots more without checking out some of your data and learning more about you. But that doesn’t mean Google is doing nefarious things like looking at your vacation snaps and reading your texts.

It’s kind of ironic that you quickly slam Google for its data mining in every Friday Night Fight that involves Google, yet you’re a Gmail user. If its policies are that much of a concern to you, why don’t you use another mail provider?

Please give me an example of how Siri is bettering Google Assistant or Google Now. Because I can’t think of one thing Siri does that the others don’t do, yet I can think of many things the others do that Siri can’t — some of which I’ve mentioned above.

I haven’t tried Siri in macOS Sierra yet, but is it not the same as Siri on my iPhone? What does it do on the desktop that it can’t do in my hand? Can it send content to my TV and control other smart devices like the Google Assistant can?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: You’re not wrong that I use gmail for a work account, although not for a personal one. I guess everyone needs to decide what they feel comfortable with Google having access to — and you’re wrong in thinking it’s not possible to carry out good machine learning without an ad-driven business model, because Apple has shown that’s not the case. They’ve done some amazing things in this area, but your personal data isn’t being used for monetary gain in the same way it is with Google.

I don’t want to be impolite here, but I feel like you’re not not really selling Google’s efforts in this area as being particularly superior. And Siri on macOS is a different animal to Siri on iOS because your iPhone isn’t a productivity tool in the same way your Mac is. For example, you can use natural language processing to easily carry out searches, defining different parameters such as keywords, file modification dates, content and more. Those search results can then easily be dropped into other apps, which is a very useful feature.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I didn’t say it wasn’t possible; I just said we can’t have certain features without some data mining.

You say I’m not selling Google’s efforts, but you haven’t answered any of the questions I just put to you about why Siri is better. You haven’t told me one thing Siri does that Google Now or Google Assistant can’t do.

Seeing as though you appear to be all out of fight, let’s hand this one over to the readers now. Do you think Apple has done enough to bring Siri in line with its rivals? Has it been able to surpass them? Or should it be doing more?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?