Apple drops the ball, and Google drops the mic

Remember when Apple’s Siri was being touted as something clever and futuristic—a personal digital assistant that could recognize everyday speech and provide the information you needed as if by magic—sometimes with sassy banter even? Those days are long gone.

Vic Gundotra, senior vice president, engineering for Google, speaks about Google+ photo at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Vic Gundotra, senior vice president, engineering for Google, speaks about Google+ photo at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

For more than a year, Siri has been on the receiving end of jokes in the tech community—even getting to the point where Microsoft (Microsoft!) felt emboldened enough to use Siri in an attack ad against the iPad.

Meanwhile, Google continues to release product after product that hints at the dynamic future of natural language search—a future where Google not only knows what you’re looking for, but also anticipates what you might be looking for in the future.

For now, what the tech community has been buzzing about is Google’s new conversational search. It has only been a soft launch, but already the initial reviews have been glowing. Computerworld’s Sharon Gaudin quotes Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead saying Google has “lapped Siri” with what Gaudin describes as “sci-fi-like search.” Pretty much everyone agrees that Google conversational search is a big step towards delivering on the initial promise of Siri. What’s unique about Google’s new search capability is not the ability to use voice commands—it’s that Google seems to truly understand the context of each query, as if it were having a conversation. If you’re running Chrome, once you activate the microphone button on the Google homepage, you can ask a question to Google, and Google will answer you back with a voice response. You can then continue this back-and-forth with Google for an indefinite period of time, as if you’re engaged in a conversation with a real person.

Long-time search expert Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land took Google conversational search through its paces to demonstrate the power of a search tool that includes both natural speech recognition and context awareness. In other words, once you ask Google a question – e.g. “Who is the president of the United States?” – it will then recognize a follow-up question like, “How old is he?” by answering, “Barack Obama is 51 years old.” It actually recognizes the pronoun “he” refers to “Barack Obama” and understands that the question refers to Obama’s age. You can then ask additional follow-up questions—everything from “How tall is he?” to “Who is his wife?” and it will provide the appropriate answers.

That’s something Siri can’t do yet. In fact, no company can do that yet … except Google.

If this were a contest between Apple and Google to see who could deliver better answers to voice queries, it would be over as soon as you hit the “mic” button in the Google search box.

Google drops mic, walks off stage.

And that’s exactly what Google hoped would happen. At the I/O conference earlier this month, Google SVP Amit Singhal said that he hoped that the new offering would lead to the “end of search as we know it.” Google compared it to the voice-activated computer on “Star Trek”—a futuristic type of artificial intelligence that goes beyond just providing links to providing answers. Search has always been the company’s bread-and-butter, and this latest offering shows that the company is thinking deeply about the way we search in an era of new digital devices that know more about us than ever before.

In contrast, Apple’s Siri always felt like something of a nice bonus for new iPhone users, rather than something that was truly integrated into the Apple ecosystem. Apple doing search felt like Google doing social – it was something the company had to do for business competitive reasons, but was never something that came naturally. Siri never cared when you were downloading songs from iTunes and had no idea which books or magazines you were reading on your iPad. Unless you needed a wake-up alarm the next morning, there was no reason to make Siri part of your everyday iPhone or iPad experience.

Google’s new conversational search may be just the warm-up, a sign of more to come. If you think about what Google has planned for Glass, then finding ways to integrate this new conversational search functionality is a no-brainer. At the very least, Google can gather information now about the way users are using voice search to make Glass less glitchy. Nothing (okay, almost nothing) is more embarrassing than speaking aloud the same phrase again and again in public and having nothing happen.

Google can also experiment with new ways to activate the search experience, such as with “hot words”, so that it knows when to stay in the background, and when to emerge, brimming with answers. The goal would be a true contextual search experience, in which Google takes information it already knows about you—your previous queries, your GPS location, the names of your Gmail contacts—and gives you answers in real-time, at exactly the moment that you need them, without you even having to ask.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Dominic Basulto · May 24, 2013