Like other Apple innovations and implementations, Siri changed everything. It was an instant hit that other companies had to immediately copy. Failure to do so would have been devastating. Competitors reacted predictably. Fast clones were rushed out the door. Skunkworks hobbies were promoted to active products. And the digital assistant race was officially on.

Initially, Google and others had the singular goal of averting the existential crisis that was created by Apple having a compelling technology that they didn’t. Only then could Google begin to compete with Apple’s Siri. Apple and Google are very different companies with different business models and different visions of the future. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Google would evolve the concept of a digital assistant in a way that Apple did not.

To get a better understanding of how the two visions of the digital assistant diverged, we must travel back in time to see how it all started:

Voice Control

Before Siri, there was Voice Control. It was introduced in iOS 3.2 for the iPhone 3GS back in the summer of 2009. That was over a year before Google announce Voice Actions for Android. You can still access Voice Control by deactivating Siri. It continues to exist as a testimony to Apple’s original vision.

Apple was not trying to create a search engine, or a way to collect and redistribute user data. Apple was simply trying to make it easier for people to use their devices with what is potentially the most natural interface of all: speech.

Voice Control was a way of surfacing the hidden complexity and depth of the device without forcing a person to directly interact with that complexity. Think about the challenge of finding a single song in a catalog comprised of tens of thousands of tracks. If you have every album ever recorded by Randy Travis (like me), then remembering which album your favorite song of the moment is on can be a daunting and time-consuming task.

Apple eliminated all of the steps associated with finding and playing your favorite song by enabling the user to just ask the device to play the song. Of course, this wasn’t the only feature of the new Voice Control system. But it is a perfect example of what the system was there to do.

You no longer had to remember where you deposited a particular app. Just command the system to open it with only your voice. While not every function of the system was available in that way, most of the common system controls were. Suddenly, everyone was a power user.

Siri: The Evolution of Voice Control

It is important to remember that Apple purchased Siri. They didn’t invent it. But they did alter to such a degree that by the time they implemented it, Siri was an entirely different product. You might recall that the geekier among us mightily complained that Apple ruined Siri by stripping it of some of its most useful functions.

After all these years, Apple still has not returned that functionality because that is not what they bought it for in the first place. Had Google purchased Siri, it would have remained largely unchanged. It would have simply been scaled up to do more of the same for a much bigger audience.

We do not have access to Apple’s whiteboard. But we do have the clairvoyance of history. We know exactly what happened at every step of the way since 2009 and the subsequent integration of Siri. I believe that Apple did exactly what they intended to do when they purchased Siri. They enhanced and extended the capabilities of their Voice Control system. The fact that it is still the fallback when Siri is unavailable tells us everything we need to know.

With Siri, Apple is still trying to make the on-device experience better for the end-user. It can be argued that this is no longer a sufficient goal. It is certainly not the goal of competitors like Amazon. Alexa does not exist to make the device more accessible to the enduser. Alexa is the goal. The Amazon Echo hardware only exists as an Alexa delivery system.

Amazon wants you to use Alexa to make life easier and more profitable for Amazon. They will serve the minimal needs you require so that you will provide them with the maximum amount of useful information. Because this has never been Apple’s goal, Siri has never evolved in that direction, even when some tech enthusiasts have demanded it.

Google Assistant: The Road Not Taken

Just because Apple chose to go in one direction does not mean the other direction was wrong. Though in this case, I believe Apple chose the better path. Google chose the other. And what we have today is Google Assistant. It is exactly what one would expect Google to do, and Apple to avoid.

There are two ways companies tend to compete with Apple:

  1. They try to one-up the Apple product by throwing more technology at it so they can tack on the “er” at the end of a feature. Apple’s phone is thin. We’ll make one thinner. We will make a processor that’s faster. We will make the screen stronger. And we can certainly do it cheaper. They list the features of the Apple product that are getting the most attention. Then they maker theirs with more “er.”
  2. When competitors decide to tackle a problem, they tend to look for tech problems to solve rather than human problems faced by the end user. When they are not going after a tech problem, they are working to solve a company, or even industry problem. They completely miss the fact that Apple is first and foremost trying to solve end user problems.

Apple is using Siri to make using the phone easier. Google is using Assistant to gather data, demonstrate the technology state of the art, and feed their advertising empire. They share a strategy with Facebook who is still the king in this regard: Google gets the end user to feed them useful data that they can then use to better serve their customers, the advertisers.

It is not fair to suggest that Google is doing this without giving something back in return. Google provides “free” apps and services. I use quotes because it really isn’t free at all. It just does not cost the end user money directly. If we follow the money, Google’s comes from advertisers. But make no mistake about it. There is definitely an end user transaction.

One of the reasons I cannot recommend Google over iOS to most people is that most people simply do not understand the nature of the transaction. And those that do don’t grasp the full extent of it. People just do not realize how valuable their sensitive data is, or why it is sensitive at all.

It is like a 4 year old running around in public with no pants on. They may not get it. But others do. Google knows the value of the information they extract. And they are well aware that for the most part, the end user does not.

There is no doubt that the end user can get a lot of benefit from what Assistant does. Sometimes that benefit is a staggering amount. That said, Assistant does not do anything for the benefit of the end user. This is a subtle and important point. The existence of the features has the side-effect of making users happy. But the purpose of the features is to serve Google’s real customers. And that is not, and never will be you.

There is no doubt that nothing sorts and freshens up your library of photos like Google’s photo service. They definitely want you to use it as often as possible. But I am convinced its real mission is to enhance Google’s AI and ML efforts. It is the same reason all those Google captchas needs you to identify traffic lights and storefronts. They are gathering data to help their self-driving car, and other such projects.

Here’s the thing: You would never give a government agency all your photos. Many would go to jail before they submitted to such a demand. We have some sense of how much information the government could glean from such a personal treasure trove. But we hand over those same photos to Google and Facebook without question for free storage and tech tricks.

I am not actually convinced that making your photos look better is a thing that helps the end user all that much. Most people will take a hundred pictures at a time and never look at them again. Most of the pictures a Google customer takes are viewed only by Google’s algorithm. Your smartphone camera is already great. Your pictures are just fine, especially for Instagram where the best of them will end up. So while it is a neat tech trick, I am not convinced that it is terribly meaningful.

The same can be said for a lot of the magic provided by Google Assistant. Let’s take a closer look at the one currently making the news:

Appointments Without the Humans

Duplex made a big splash with an impressive but somewhat questionable demo at last year’s Google developer conference. As it happens, it wasn’t exactly all that Google was presenting it to be. But it was still very technologically impressive, and socially controversial.

Google’s gift to the user base was to enable them to make appointments without having to talk to humans. If you are the type of person who feels your day would be materially better if you could get your dinner reservation without needing to actually talk to the person who will very likely show you to your table.

Perhaps you are dining at home, but you really need a haircut. Good news, you also don’t have to talk to the very stylist that you will likely be talking to while they do your hair. But at least you don’t have to make the appointment with her yourself.

On the one hand, this is just providing the average Joe or Jane with the feeling of being as important as their pompous boss who sits in their office, presses a button, and yells at their human assistant to make travel arrangements for them. Those important executives just don’t have time to be bothered with such things. On the other hand, it solves no real problems that normal humans actually face.

For a person to have their assistant make an appointment on their behalf, they first have to communicate their needs to the assistant. It is the same process as communicating their needs to a person on the other end of the phone. “Here is exactly what I need. Now tell that person over there.”

This does not make the process of setting appointments more accurate or efficient or enjoyable for either party. It does codify a heretofore unspoken class structure: those worth talking to and those not worth your direct interaction. You talk to clients and equals as much as necessary. You talk to servants as little as possible.

Google fundamentally believes that human interactions with other humans is a problem that needs to be solved. Apple does not. Google is using technology to eliminate the human experience rather than enhance it. This is what I mean by Google showing us the wrong way to use a digital assistant.

Conclusion: A Better Way Forward

There are many ways that Siri can be improved. But what I hope is that Apple is giving a hard think to the question of what the best use of a digital assistant is. It is not merely a tech demo used to sell expensive smartphones to a tech-bored public. And it is not a better way of dealing with the servant class.

I like the idea of helping the user access more features of their device. But there is even more that can be done to help the user like provide timely information, and even conversation. Right now, Google is in a better position to connect their digital assistant with more timely and actionable information because they own the search engine most people use. Apple is definitely behind in that area.

It is past time Apple invest in producing their own search engine and offer more than just a web browser. If Apple is going to be the privacy company, they need to offer end-to-end privacy solutions for every aspect of using the device. That goes double for routers. Apple cannot be the privacy solution if they don’t offer privacy options for the entire experience. An Apple-branded and controlled search engine is table stakes.

Once Apple owns the search process, they can provide their assistant with better results that are not dependent on third-parties that do not have the end-user’s privacy in mind.

There are some situations where it is better to bypass the human when scheduling certain things like flights. The human isn’t the problem so much as the system. Getting on the phone to book a flight can take a long time holding the line just waiting for the privilege of speaking with someone.

Besides cutting hold times, bypassing the human can also save you money. The computer can research every flight for your specific time and destination of choice. It will surface options that a human at an airline will not mention, or even know about. None of this is true for bookings such as hair salons and restaurants.

I think the technology can be pushed even further. Conversational computing is just around the corner. What you want is for the computer to talk back to you in helpful ways, just like when you bounce ideas off another human. Our digital assistants can even start conversations based on preferences. And conversations can continue past the initial inquiry. That is where real insight and discovery happens.

Google Assistant has devolved into a tech race where the winner is the one who throws the most tech at nonexistent consumer problems. With any luck, Apple will never enter Siri into that race.

David Johnson

AuthorDavid Johnson