6 10 2013
Personal assistant wars
The war for market share in devices that connect with people isn’t about the devices themselves in the long run. The most critical challenge is making those devices usable. Each new device and upgrade is more complex; applications on each device multiply like fruit flies; we deal with an ever-increasing number of devices; and the Web services, information sources, and communication channels they support continue to explode in number and messages. “Personal assistants”–dealing with those devices, applications, and services through natural language and speech—are an attempt to address this growing complexity. The user manual reads simply, “Just tell me what I can help you with” (the start screen of the recently upgraded personal assistant app from Nuance Communications).
In addition to Nuance’s upgrade, Apple’s Siri was enhanced, Google’s voice search has evolved to a personal assistant woken up by “OK, Google” or “OK, Google Now,” Samsung’s S-Voice personal assistant (powered by Nuance technology) is a critical key to the usability of its newly introduced smartwatch, and Microsoft’s latest Bing upgrade is emphasizing voice and natural language capabilities: “Stop searching and start finding.”
The recent Siri upgrade, for example, allows inquiries such as the following:
• “Do I have any missed calls?”
• “Search Twitter for ObamaCare”
• “Launch photos”
• “Set up a meeting at 9” (with a follow-up conversation to add the details)
• “Give me directions home.”
And Google added voice access to information in Gmail, Calendar, and Google+ through its search function. Google and other assistants are also adding proactive features, anticipating what you may want to know before you ask. Key characteristics of the evolving personal assistant are (1) reducing the number of steps to achieve an objective or find specific information, and (2) integrating multiple applications into one, in effect, by making their functionality available through the assistant.
Further, a trend toward cross-device availability of a single assistant, making multiple devices more of a single experience, is developing. Bing and Google natural-language features are available through browsers on multiple devices, with Google more tightly integrating its voice search with its Chrome Browser (even offering access to its speech recognition in the cloud to developers of web sites). Microsoft is making Bing voice search available for Xbox and even making Bing accessible through Office documents. In announcing Bing upgrades in September, a Microsoft exec said, “Bing is no longer just a search engine on a web page. It’s a brand that combines search technology across products you use every day to help empower you with insights.”
The battle for market share among brands may eventually be less dependent on specific device features. It may simply be resolved by which personal assistant you like better.