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Digital assistants are the talk of the town

By Evan Wade / July 31, 2014

Digital assistants are the talk of the town

When your favorite show as a child was Knight Rider and you spent entire summers daydreaming about how amazing it’d be to have a KITT-powered car, watching a phone answer a question you asked out loud isn’t just impressive, it’s magical. To that end, it’s this author’s firm opinion that today’s digital assistants are among the jaw-droppingest things ever produced by the tech industry, and it’s all thanks to better technology, genius-level creativity, and thousands of insanely dedicated people on the backend putting it all together. Here’s a breakdown of today’s digital-assistant landscape and where it might end up in the future.

Siri: The OG of digital assistants

Siri, otherwise known as the first “true” digital assistant on the modern smartphone market, debuted on the iPhone 4s to mixed reactions way back in 2011. Now, three years removed from the launch, it’s clear the people who wondered if the service would be “another FaceTime” were wrong, and the immense potential noted in other write-ups has been realized to a large degree.

We all know what the digital assistant does, at least at a basic level, but the cool thing here is how it works. The secret behind your smartphone sidekick is cloud computing, something we touched on in our article on supercomputing solutions back in 2013. Instead of relying on the relatively limited hardware in the user’s hand when someone asks Siri a question, Apple’s system uses handheld iOS devices as a sort of two-way messenger, transcoding the user’s question and sending it to bigger, beefier offsite devices, which then send an answer back. (It’s also worth noting that the other two products in this article also do this, but Apple’s OG status shines through again, giving them a slight head start.)

Despite heavy rumors to the contrary from respected sources like Forbes, Apple did not fully open Siri to third-party app developers at their most recent WWDC event, but they did give certain developers far more control over the digital assistant than ever before. HomeKit, a “framework for communicating with and controlling connected devices in a user’s home,” according to Apple, will allow manufacturers of home automation devices (think garage door openers, Nest Thermostat, and Phillips Hue) to make use of the voice-controlled and -activated software.

You don’t have to be a home automation aficionado or industry insider to see why this is huge. On its face, Siri and HomeKit will let you use your phone to do all sorts of things around the house, assuming you have the appropriate hardware. According to AppleInsider, Apple has made the APIs open ended enough to account for “unique options that might not fit into predefined smart home categories.”

More importantly, HomeKit indicates that full third-party access will eventually come to Siri. That alone could be industry-changing, and at the very least would permanently alter the state of mobile apps for the better. It’s no secret that Apple has plenty of business strategists and tech visionaries on the payroll. Here’s hoping someone with enough influence sees fit to push Siri for the developer to the same status as another favorite topic of ours, iOS in the Car.

Google Now

You can draw a lot of parallels between Google Now and Siri, at least as it applies to third-party app integration. While not every developer can make use of the contextually aware search/voice command system, the company does work with specific vendors to make their combined products play nicely together, with a big focus on home automation tools like the above-mentioned Nest.

In other ways, however, Google Now is very much its own product. As we’ve discussed in the past, ecosystem integration appears to be Google’s primary focus with their recent host of releases and announcements, and Mountain View’s version of the digital assistant is clearly at the center of those plans. In the very near future, a fully connected Google user will basically be able to put the assistant (and accompanying suite of tablets, phones, watches, car screens, and televisions) to use anywhere they care to. The combined mobility and functionality of Google Now and corresponding hardware will make the line between digital and human assistants blurrier than ever before.

That sort of integration also plays heavily into Google’s competitive advantage as the world’s leading search engine, and not just as it applies to Web searches. Google has established Now as a way for users to search local and remote content, displaying relevant results from the user’s devices and the Web as dictated by context.

Let’s use several Google services together as an example of this in motion. When our hypothetical user says “Ok Google” to activate the service, then says the name of a local restaurant she frequently visits, Now figures out exactly what she needs and decides what content to show first based on factors like location and context. If Now sees she’s in the car, it might pop up directions and contact info on her dash screen, while her phone could display reviews or even pictures she took of a recent birthday party she attended there. It’s all about prioritizing and sorting information, two things Google has built an empire around.

Now and Siri are different from and similar to one another in the same ways as Android and iOS. Sure, they both sort of do the same thing, but one is designed for rock-solid and clearly-defined performance on a specific set of hardware. The other is made to work on a broad variety of devices, all while tailoring the parent company’s host of core products to the user’s experience. Which philosophy is best is in the eye of the consumer.


Like the Windows Phone, Cortana is late to the party and aims to differentiate itself by filling spaces other major players on the market can’t or won’t touch. In the OS’s case, that scheme centers on cross-compatibility with Microsoft’s proprietary software and hardware products (Xbox, Office Suite, etc.). For Cortana, it’s all about the third-party functionality.

If you think about it, this is brilliant strategy on Microsoft’s part. Though the OS is perfectly capable, Windows Phone has caught a bunch of flak for their relatively weak app offerings. Cozying up to third parties entices both developers and on-the-fence potential users to come over to WP’s end of the mobile spectrum.

While Microsoft’s decision to let third-party app makers fully integrate with their digital assistant doesn’t carry the weight a similar move from Apple or Google would, there are still plenty of positives to be had here. As one TechRadar update puts it, the app could be “wine expert and a travel agent and a personal assistant.” Basically, whatever devs have the gumption to make using the digital assistant service, Cortana can most likely support it. The “expert” thing is also important, allowing the assistant to infer things about the user’s preferences based on previous interactions, then use that data to further tailor its recommendations.

Early reports indicate that Cortana is an excellent digital assistance service (another TechRadar update says it “steals the show” on the newly-released Windows Phone 8.1), but will it push Microsoft to prominence in the smartphone wars or motivate its “big two” competitors to change their own assistant offerings? Probably not. As cool as they are, assistants are no longer device-sellers on a large scale, and Apple and Google undoubtedly already have plans to open their products to the app developing public.

That all said, with Microsoft’s novel approach of viewing Cortana as a real personal assistant, instead of just a voice assistant, we think it’ll be enough to keep Microsoft alive for the foreseeable future.

Not quite Knight Rider, but getting closer

Digital assistants are far from a fad or a second-shelf feature in the world of mobile. They’re an integral part of every major mobile company’s plans and a window into the future of device-human communication. Whether you’re old enough to remember the pre cell phone days ,or your baby pictures were taken on an iPhone, you have be impressed with what’s out there so far—and excited for what’s to come later down the road. They might not be as functional as KITT at the moment, but you gotta start somewhere.

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