Ah, virtual assistants! Nobody really knows where these are headed, but by now it should be obvious that the big three mobile platforms are intent on pushing the frontier forward in what is shaping up to be yet another battlefield. Quite frankly, however, while the industry as a whole has been checking up with Google Now and Apple's Siri every now and then to see how each is doing and how they compare against each other, it's only now that Microsoft has finally entered the space that this is starting to feel like a real race. But before we talk about specifics and discuss where each of the three is likely headed, it's important to first understand where each is coming from.
Most of you would assume that Siri is the one we should start with -- after all, when Apple introduced the personal assistant with the iPhone 4S in 2011, it was the first to do so, and it kept that title for a while. But the truth is that Siri and Google Now (introduced in 2012), while technically older products, aren't exactly the veterans here, for Microsoft has been toying with voice recognition for over a decade now. Sure, the form factor was different back then, but the truth is that the company has (or should have) more experience in this particular niche than both of its competitors taken together.
And this shows with Cortana, which, despite its BETA tag, is shaping up to be a pretty impressive alternative, and quickly. Indeed, Microsoft has come a long way since this historical blooper
, at least judging by its Halo-inspired
virtual assistant which is now part of Windows Phone 8.1
. Why, however, and what about the rest?
Wait, what? Voice recognition engines
Yeah, that's where we'll start, because guess what -- if your virtual assistant is unable to understand what you're saying to it with a very high degree of success, then the frustration alone will drive you away from using it and turn it into a useless product. As it happens, the trio of Google Now, Siri, and Cortana, all handle themselves well enough to keep you around, but they're not all equally good.
Siri having some difficulties understanding what it's being asked.
Without a doubt, Siri is the best... at being the least capable. Indeed, while the voice recognition engine it is packing is pretty darn good overall, it's starting to lag behind Google Now and Cortana. What's worse, both Google Now and Cortana will fix what they consider misunderstood queries on the fly rather successfully, while Siri will simply keep to what it "thinks" you said, and make no edits even when an obviously nonsensical query is formed. This means that Apple's virtual assistant is sometimes left perplexed, while its competitors rush to give you the right answer.
With Siri out of the horse race (in this category), it's down to Google Now and Cortana to battle it out. Gun-to-our-head, we'd say that Google Now wins this one, but we still can't deny that Cortana is close. Very close.
Then again, even a flawless voice recognition engine is useless if the digital assistant in question is just not programmed well enough to adequately provide help with your agenda and answer your many questions. You know, the kind of things that make an assistant. And, the less you have to do, the better.
This particular category, however, is far more complex, and it's worth defining what 'helpfulness' really is in this context. The way we see it, a good virtual assistant should go beyond the basics of just being able to set an appointment, open an app, or call/text a contact. Obviously, these are essential, but they can't quite top getting an extended answer to queries such as "When is Independence Day", which causes Google Now to go into history mode, or being able to teach Siri how to correctly pronounce your name. It's also very helpful if the assistant in question can perform tasks without requiring any input other than your voice -- a bit like how Siri handles tasks like setting reminders, and not at all how Google Now will have you do the grunt work in that same scenario, even if that gives you more control.
Seriously, Siri? You can't talk about the Statue of Liberty unless one is in a supported region?
In other words, the virtual assistant right now needs to be talkative and understanding of where the conversation is going. Unfortunately, while Siri has its moments, it can't quite compare with Google Now, which is by far the most chatty assistant of the three, and in a good way. Cortana, at this point, is somewhat silent, and usually just serves the information and lets your eyes do the work. Perhaps most importantly, only Google Now currently supports follow up questions. This allows you to quickly get further information, without ever having to touch the phone. For example, if you first ask which the capital of Germany is, and then simply follow up with a question along the lines of what's the population or time or weather there, Google Now will know that you're still referring to Berlin, Germany's capital. Siri and Cortana, on the other hand, treat every query as a separate entity, unless you stumble upon what we would call pre-made scenarios, e.g. reminders, where the developer has taught the assistant to ask X and Y questions in order to carry out the task. So Siri and Cortana will come up with follow-up questions if you want to set a reminder or call somebody, but that's not comparable with what Google Now has going on.
Cortana, on the other hand, has a pretty neat piece of functionality built-in: the ability to set reminders for the next time you interact with people. So if you want to be reminded to congratulate someone on his job promotion next time you contact or are contacted by him or her, whether through a call or a text, Cortana will be there for you. Right now, this is unique to her, and it's a considerable advantage.
Last, but certainly not least, it is important to note that Google Now is currently the only assistant that you can call up by simply saying "OK, Google" whilst you're at the homsescreen of most latest-generation flagships. Siri will be getting always-listening support in iOS 8 -- only if you're inside the Siri interface or tethered to an outlet, though -- so until then you either have to long-press the Home button to summon her, or enable the 'Raise to Speak' feature so that Siri starts whenever you pull your iPhone to your ear. For the time being, Cortana is only accessible by long-pressing the search key on Windows Phone 8.1-based devices.
Of course, the scope of supported questions (and types of served results) also differs, and is an important factor when deciding the trio's helpfulness.
In general, Google Now is ahead, and is rarely befuddled by your query. It can define words and objects, is aware of your bookings, provides flight data, and will give you an overlook of how your favorite sports team is doing. It'll also tell you about important landmarks if asked, break down food data like calories, carbs, and salts, and recite the cast of your favorite movie or TV show and its theme song. To be fair, Siri and Cortana won't disappoint you if asked the same, it's just that they don't do as great a job in our opinion, as, in comparison, their answers are usually less extensive and will often have you read the information for yourself (especially Cortana), as if you're performing a normal search.
Google Now and Siri provide a helpful table, while Cortana simply displays a Bing search. And not a particularly good one.
Indeed, the way information is served is pretty important, especially since most queries will, ideally, trigger both an overview spoken response, but also provide you with at-a-glance summary (often a table (Siri) or an accompanying picture (Google Now / Cortana)). Google Now also usually provides you with more control on how to proceed next when compared with Cortana and Siri, so if you ask about the Statue of Liberty, you'll also get shortcuts to navigation, call information, and the landmark's very own website. Google Now is also far more open to queries from all around the world, while Siri will refuse to support a whole slew of queries if it doesn't have official regional support, including ones that don't really rely on having in-depth support for the locale. Ugh!
Where Google Now loses, big time
So if you know nothing about the above virtual assistants, your impression so far will likely be that Google Now has a lead on the rest. While that's generally
true, Google Now loses in one specific category right now: having a soul and being fun.
Objectively, Google Now is the least likable assistant of the three, as it's always down to the point. It's like that colleague you have who seems to be all about the work, and none for the fun. This is not overly surprising, however, as it's obvious that the three companies envision what is still a fledgling category differently.
To be more specific, it seems like Apple and Microsoft agree that for a virtual assistant to be successful, it needs to not just be a tasks-obsessed robot, but more of a companion that will know you and perhaps even "get you" in the future. For example, did you know that Cortana can sing? That's right, she'll actually sing you a song. And, as mentioned, Siri will learn to better pronounce your name, and is also aware of your birthday. Both will tell you that they like you a lot if asked, and even tell you a joke when you're feeling blue, or turn you down when you make the inevitable inappropriate (and weird) move on them. None of these will work with Google Now, which will simply perform a web search and basically give you a blank stare.
It's hard to definitevely say which of the three assistants is the fastest, as comparing them directly can sometime feel like comparing apples and oranges. They're alike, but not the same thing.
The main reason behind this is that Google, Apple, and Microsoft, all programmed their assistants differently, so they don't always pull the same type of information. In other words, Google Now usually provides the most thorough answers, while Cortana often offers the least. Apple is somewhere in the middle, and usually ties with either of the other two depending on the query.
All said, it's generally true that Google Now is a bit faster than Siri, which, in turn, is a bit faster than Cortana. In the table below, we've basically defined speed as the time it takes either of the three to recognize what you're saying, ask the server it utilizes on the back end, and fetch you a result. As you can see, however, the differences on the whole are pretty small.
Now, while Cortana came last, we do have to say that we're feeling more lenient towards it -- sure, Microsoft has a ton of experience in this area, but it's also true that Cortana is still officially in BETA and is available only in the US. This, more than likely, means that Microsoft is yet to scale its servers' processing power up, so Cortana's speed is pretty satisfying at this point. Hopefully, it will get even better.
Conclusion and expectations
In conclusion, it really comes down to what exactly you're looking for when it comes to virtual assistants. If you have a no-nonsense-give-me-the-facts type attitude, then you're most likely going to side with us when we say that Google Now is the best right now, at least when it comes to providing you with the answers you need, and fast. What's more, Google Now is far more pro-active than the rest, and offers insights and help even when you're not interacting with it in any way.
A big reason for that is the fact that Google is a master at search, and has a pretty obvious interest in pushing Google Now farther and farther, specifically now that Android Wear is a reality that the company is seemingly intent on supporting well. Indeed, if anybody stands to win from having the most polished, contextually-aware assistant right now, it's Google.
As for Siri, while it is inferior to Google Now on the whole, one can't deny that Apple just has a way of doing things in an appealing way, and its virtual assistant is a good example. Unlike Google Now, it feels like Siri actually has a soul. Unfortunately, and while Apple hasn't abandoned the project, it feels like Siri isn't much of a priority for Cupertino at this point
Speaking of personality, we can't forget Cortana, either. She can sing, after all! Sure, that's more flavor than anything else, but it does indicate the path Microsoft has taken with its very solid personal assistant. We do understand that Cortana still has that "new" appeal of course, yet, quite frankly, we can't help but be very excited about what Microsoft has in store for her. It's one heck of a solid BETA piece of code, that's for sure.
Ultimately, however, the truth is that these assistants are still a very tiny consideration when it comes to what drives consumers towards this or that platform. A bit like wearables right now, these little helpers are still very much a work-in-progress, so the sky is the limit. The cynics among us, however, could construe their current state of being a little more than particularly smart search engines as a sign of weakness for the whole paradigm, and it's hard to argue with that right now. But, hey, to each their own, right?