This week didn't look good for Apple. Google's new Pixel phone launched to positive reviews, largely because of the phone's new digital helper called Google Assistant.
As I wrote in my review of the new Google Pixel, it's relatively easy to make a high-end smartphone these days. The real challenge is lighting it up with unique software that helps you do more. And the new Google Assistant accomplishes just that.
Right out of the gate, Assistant is noticeably smarter and more capable than Siri, a stark embarrassment for Apple, which had a five-year head start on Google. AI and voice control are considered to be the next big step in how we compute (just look at the early success of the Amazon Echo), and Google has already pulled ahead. Assistant is so good because it taps into Google's vast network of products and culls them together into a single, all-knowing app. The more Google services like Calendar, Photos, and Gmail you use, the smarter Assistant gets. It's also better at answering questions than the competition, thanks to its ability to tap into Google's vast Knowledge Graph and deliver the single answer to the question you ask. Google Assistant has so many impressive skills that it's impossible to list them all now.
I'm still discovering new capabilities after almost two weeks with the Pixel. Here's how I put it in my review: I haven't even come close to unlocking everything Assistant can do, but I was routinely surprised whenever I dreamed up something new to ask.
Pull up the photos I took from my latest trip to San Francisco. Done. Give me the fastest route home. Done. Remind me to chat with my boss when I get to work tomorrow. Done. Play that Calvin Harris and Rihanna song. Done.
Then there's the ability to tap into Google's vast knowledge of the web and deliver answers to the questions you ask. What time is the next presidential debate? Did the Jets win? Are there any good ramen restaurants near me, and can I get a reservation? I could go on and on, but you probably get the idea. Google has tens of billions of answers logged into its system, and it can pull even more from trusted sources like Wikipedia if it's stumped. It's almost always able to get you what you're looking for, though I did experience some rare cases in which it would pull up a standard list of Google search results. The shame here is that Siri had a five-year head start on Google Assistant, and Apple totally blew it. Siri struggles to answer even the simplest of queries. It wasn't until two tech columnists recently pointed out those flaws that Siri quickly learned the answers to some of the questions they were griping about. Curious!
The reality is Apple can't be reactive and improve Siri every time someone blogs about its flaws. Luckily, the pieces are in place, as Apple has acquired a series of AI and machine learning companies over the last year or so. Most notably, it bought the UK-based startup Vocal IQ, which as I reported earlier this year had technology that allowed users to control a phone or computer completely with voice. That also jibes with Apple's near-term goal to make Siri fully capable of controlling the iPhone within the next few years, as Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reported. But for now, Google Assistant is clearly in the lead, and that lead will only get wider as more people use it and increases its intelligence.
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