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"Hable con ella", and she may respond

by User Not Found | 4月 03, 2014

In that classic Almodóvar film, “Talk to Her”, from which the title is borrowed for this blog, the two men were talking to their love objects in coma, desperately hoping they would respond.  They didn’t. 

While it’s sadness with a tinge of hopefulness that permeates the film, it would be anticipation followed by sheer frustration if you attempt to command a machine with your voice then it doesn’t respond correctly.  Or simply doesn’t respond.

That had been our experience with most attempts on “Voice UI”, until Apple got us Siri.  It was in its own league for a while as it went beyond simply being an UI to becoming a “personal assistant”, that is, it can do more than just operate the phone but answer your questions.  Most importantly, it does not only respond, it actually responds correctly in most cases.

Then Samsung’s S Voice and Google’s Google Now quickly followed (in case you wonder, yes, in that order), both of which claimed to be “personal assistants” too.  The way these “PAs” work, to put it in a simple way, is to have the voice UI on top of the search engine of the phone, supported by contextual awareness (location, user’s behavior history, etc.) and links to the Internet both directly and through partners.  Since most of these partnerships between the handset vendors and third parties are not exclusive, we can rest assured that they would all agree that Mount Everest is 8,848 meters high, we are also granted some tongue-in-cheek moments like when both Siri and S Voice pointed to Windows Phones as the best smartphone despite they failed to agree on the models.

The winding introduction takes me to the story of the day: at its Build 2014 event in San Francisco yesterday, Microsoft launched its own voice “personal assistant” called “Cortana”, named after a figure in its own Halo games, therefore became the latest handset maker to join the voice companion game.  We’re as happy for Microsoft to bridge the gap as to see our prediction that Microsoft would do so being vindicated.

The truth is, the world has moved on from 2011 when Siri was a key differentiator for Apple to 2014 when a voice “personal assistant” has become a table stake for the leading handset makers.  A voice assistant will not swing users from one platform to another.  It’s the development of the overall ecosystems that does, as we have repeatedly reminded the stakeholders of the industry.

Why and when we may need such a tool may be debateable though.  I have long been sceptical.  Seeing that consumers, especially the younger generation, have increasingly moved away from conventional telephony when people actually talked ON the phone towards social networks and messaging services to socialise and communicate with each other, I keep wondering if it would be a stretch to suddenly see them start talking TO their phones.  Predictably, having fun is a big use case. We observed when looking at Apple’s assets, that the majority users of iOS 5 and above have tried out Siri but after a while, presumably when the fun factor wears out, a large number of them stop using it.

To me the biggest use case is still when you drive and you really need assistance for the most critical tasks.  Instead of seeking the answer to “what Margaret Thatcher and the Eiffel Tower have in common”, you more likely need to call your friends to let them know you’re late for the appointment due to bad traffic.  However, it’s precisely on this point that Microsoft’s demo did not go very well yesterday.  We believe this was just a glitch and it would be fixed by the time the service is rolled out for commercial use.  Otherwise, their claim of a place on the table may be questioned again.

By the way, in case you want to have some fun testing which of the available voice assistants has the best understanding of the world, the answer to the question above is: they share the same nickname, “La Dame de Fer”, or “The Iron Lady”.

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