Google brought its Google Assistant to iOS this week, finally giving iPhone fans a taste of the best virtual assistant on the planet. But those on Android are in for so much more, with major improvements on the way, including impressive Google Lens integration.
The changes make it harder than ever for Siri to catch up. Despite the improvements Apple made with iOS 10, it still feels like Siri is well behind its rivals. Is that gap now too big, or can Apple catch up? Will Siri ever be as good as the Google Assistant?
Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we wage war over virtual assistants.
Killian Bell: The improvements Google previewed for the Google Assistant this week are incredibly exciting for anyone who uses a virtual assistant. Thanks to features like Google Lens, which can identify objects in the real world better than any other assistant, it is beginning to edge out rivals like Amazon Alexa. Siri is so far behind, I don’t see it catching up anytime soon.
Siri has certainly become more flexible with iOS 10, thanks to APIs that allow developers to tap into it. But the Google Assistant continues to do more. That’s largely thanks to the way in which Google uses our data, and because Apple refuses to do the same, Siri will always be behind. Some might see that as a good thing, but it’s not when it comes to virtual assistants.
Do you think Siri can catch up and be as good as the Google Assistant without all that data? How else could Apple provide similar functionality?
Luke Dormehl: There are really a few issues to discuss here. The first is whether Google Assistant can overtake Siri on iOS, since I don’t think virtual assistants are compelling enough yet that they’re going to persuade iOS users to jump to Android or vice versa. The answer is that, no, I don’t think Google Assistant is going to displace Siri. The fact that you have to download it as an app rather than it coming as standard on the phone, you can’t activate it with your voice or the Home button, it can’t tap into iOS apps in the way that Siri can makes it something that less iOS users are going to want to take advantage of.
You raise a good point about Siri’s quality, though. As I’ve written before in my “Today in Apple history” posts, Apple really popularized AI assistants when it introduced Siri with the iPhone 4s. However, jump forward to the present day and it’s certainly lagging behind other companies. I’m confident that Apple can catch up, though — so long as it makes a concerted effort to do so. Apple’s been acquiring AI companies and hiring AI researchers at a rate that it has never done before. It’s also been pushing its deep learning technology and starting to publish machine learning papers in a way that makes it clear that it is taking this field seriously for arguably the first time. It’s also been granted a number of patents which — while no guarantee of Apple’s intentions — show that it is at least considering integrating Siri more thoroughly into services like its Messages app etc.
The biggest news, of course, is that Apple is reportedly launching an Amazon Echo-style at WWDC. That could be big for Apple, and could really work in its favor as not just an AI assistant, but a way of integrating with Apple services like HomeKit and Apple Music. That’s the area Apple can really make a success of with Siri: turning it into the “digital hub” for bringing all its services together.
Killian: Apple’s restrictions mean no virtual assistant will ever be as good as Siri on iOS. They will never be able to fulfill their full potential because they don’t have access to large parts of the operating system. But that doesn’t automatically make Siri the best virtual assistant out there, and although users may not switch solely for Google Assistant right now, having iPhone owners constantly looking over the fence at what they don’t have isn’t good for Apple.
I don’t doubt that Apple is taking AI more seriously. And as a regular iOS user, I’m hoping Siri will become greater over time. But it has fallen behind in a big way, and I think it will be incredibly difficult for Apple to close the gap before it gets even wider. Siri is lacking so many features that you can find elsewhere that it will likely take years just for Apple to offer the same. By that time, who knows what the Google Assistant will be capable of.
A standalone Siri device isn’t going to change anything. It will make Siri more accessible in your home, but it won’t make it more capable. I don’t see a Siri speaker doing anything your iPhone can’t, other than supporting and recognizing multiple users.
Luke: A lot of this is going to depend on where Apple places its focus. My hope is that selling Siri hardware will mean a renewed interest in other ignored parts of Apple’s business. For example, HomeKit is an area with a tremendous amount of potential, but it seems to have been forgotten about. If Apple’s able to make a standalone Siri compelling, it’s got the chance to revolutionize the smart home and establish itself as a major player in that field. That’s not something that is going to make up a big part of Apple’s business in the immediate future, but the fact that the Other Products category — which also includes AirPods and Apple Watch — grew over the past quarter, while iPhone sales, Mac sales and Mac sales fell, shows that it makes sense to embrace areas outside of Apple’s focus on just the iPhone.
Are you much of an AI assistant user? Do you think it’s something that’s got the potential to become extremely important, or is it just a gimmick?
Killian: HomeKit does have great potential, but very few of us have smart homes. I don’t know a single person who has a smart home. What’s more, smart devices aren’t cheap, so it’s not as if we’re all going to go out and buy smart appliances just to use HomeKit in the same way we bought iPods to enjoy iTunes. Why would Apple invest its resources into becoming a major player in a market that’s still so small?
I find myself using the Google Assistant on the Galaxy S8 more than I used Siri on my iPhone 7. I don’t necessarily use it for things Siri can’t do, but I just find it to be more reliable, and a more enjoyable experience. It’s also more useful because it knows more about me; Apple’s decision not to look into our data means it can’t find useful information in our emails and elsewhere.
I certainly think AI is going to become an important part of our lives, though. Virtual assistants are gimmicks for most of us — it’s not like we couldn’t live without them — but I think we’ll become increasingly reliant on them as they get more intelligent and more capable.
Luke: I think you’re missing a big thing about smart homes. They have the potential to be a lot more than just nerdy gimmicks, just as personal computers had the potential to be more than hobbyist toys in the early 1980s. The idea of using predictive tech to, for instance, gather possible health insights, or make recommendations for even something as superficial as what TV you watch based on knowledge about how sleep patterns has the possibility of being enormous. Add in smart security systems and the like and you have a massive market opportunity that a tool like Siri could be used to interface with. I do agree Siri needs to be better, though. Right now its voice recognition tech is disappointing, especially compared to the likes of Amazon Echo.
Killian: I’m not missing it. I get that it has incredible potential. But none of that is going to happen overnight. The scenarios you mention aren’t possible yet, and when they are, who knows how much it will cost to get our hands on the necessary devices. It’s going to be a long, long time before our homes are working for us. Apple isn’t losing out by stalling on HomeKit just yet.
Let’s hand this one over to the readers now. Do you think Apple can make Siri just as good as Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant, or is it too far behind to catch up?
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?