Siri in iOS 7: Apple still playing catch up with Google, but moving aggressively

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Siri, the seemingly forever-in-beta voice-based virtual assistant built into iOS, received just a pinch of attention during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. As you admire the highlights of Apple’s Siri announcements—higher quality voice options, answers to new kinds of questions, Wikipedia integration, and a new interface—two notable elements stick out, and they both involve Google. First, Siri’s core interface continues to lag behind Google Now’s in iOS 7; second, Apple's relationship with the search giant has deteriorated to the point where it’s finally willing to make a partnership with another old rival: Microsoft.

Overall, it seems that Apple is trying a new take on an old adage: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.

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Many of the improvements to Siri in iOS 7 look quite welcome. You’ll be able to ask questions like “How old is Elvis Costello,” and Siri will show the relevant Wikipedia text and read the exact answer aloud. (He’s 58, by the way.) The redesigned Siri results screens Apple showed off look lovely, and the high-quality voices it demonstrated sounded great.

But one core feature from Google Now, the search giant’s take on voice-based interactivity, appeared to be missing: live audio transcription as you speak.

Behind the scenes, both Apple and Google send your audio to their remote servers for rapid transcription, results of which are sent back to your device as quickly as possible. And the two companies employ similar basic approaches for doing so: The words you speak are digitized and sent to the remote server as you go; neither service waits until you’re finished talking to start that process, since that would be wasted time.

Google Now shows a live transcription as you speak.

It’s what they do during that process that differs. As Apple demonstrated onstage at WWDC, Siri in iOS 7 will show a squiggly waveform as you speak, with your transcription appearing only after Siri’s stopped listening. Google Now, however, shows its best interpretation of what you’ve said as you’re speaking. Sometimes, that gets a smidgen wonky, in that later words you speak will help Google better understand what you’re saying, and already-transcribed words thus get re-interpreted.

Despite that minor limitation, Google Now’s approach is unequivocally miles better than Apple’s. Google’s take makes it easy to see if the transcription process has gone entirely off the rails, as users of either voice-based system know can happen from time to time. Siri’s brief black hole means you have no clue whether Apple really understands what you’re asking until several sometimes very long seconds have gone by.

iOS 7 isn’t shipping until the fall, Apple says, so perhaps Siri’s approach will change before then. Right now, though, this transcription difference is one area where Apple’s playing catch-up.

The Bing zing

In iOS 7, Siri will incorporate search results directly from Bing.

One of Apple’s other Siri announcements during the WWDC keynote related to its newfound integration with Bing. That’s Bing, as in B-I-N-G-oh my goodness, it’s not Google. Bing as in Microsoft Bing.

Ask Siri a general knowledge question that it’s unable to answer, and Siri will no longer ask you if you’d like it to search the Web for the answer. (In iOS 6, when Siri asks that question, if you answer in the affirmative, you’re kicked out to Safari, wherein the search is performed using your default search engine, which is probably Google.)

In iOS 7, though, ask Siri how to wax a surfboard, and you’ll get Bing search results, with webpage titles, URLs, and descriptions presented directly within Siri’s own interface. Tap the one you’re after, and you’ll go straight to the result.

No Google required. No Google involved.

The enemy of Apple’s enemy is its friend. Microsoft isn’t a threat to Apple these days, but Google sure is. By bypassing Google for Siri-driven searches, Apple robs the Mountain View company of all sorts of data the company would surely covet: What voice-based searches people are performing and when, and which results they select afterwards. It’s valuable data that Google would just love to get its anthropomorphized hands on.

And Apple’s going to hand it to Microsoft instead.

This is a competitive move. It’s Apple thumbing its nose at Google. Until now, Google’s been the default search engine on iOS and most Android devices, and Bing’s main conquest has been the under-loved, underused Windows Phone.

With iOS 7, that will shift, and even if the impact on Google is short of monumental, it’s still significant. The good news for Google is that Apple mentioned during the keynote that mobile Safari’s new multi-function location bar in iOS 7 includes type-ahead results powered by Google, so clearly Apple isn’t cutting Google out of iOS entirely.

Still, this initial Bing step shows that Apple could cut Google off from iOS search activity at any time. This is a first step, and an aggressive one at that.

Even though Google’s approach seems technically superior to Apple’s, it’s actually Apple who’s in the advantageous position here. Apple can—and almost surely will—improve Siri’s underpinnings, transcription speed, and interface. And Apple, of course, owns the entire iOS ecosystem, and its devices make up a massive chunk of the market; if Apple decides to keep favoring Bing results over Google’s, it’s unlikely Apple (or Siri) will listen to Google’s cries.

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