Speech smack-down: Siri vs. Android Voice Actions

Apple(s aapl) reported on Monday that it has sold 4 million iPhone 4S handsets in the debut weekend of the new smartphone. Some may have purchased it for the dual-core processor, while others were sold on the updated 8 megapixel camera and intelligent imaging software. But as a long-time Android(s goog) owner, one feature alone pushed me to add an iPhone 4S to my stable of smartphones: Apple’s Siri service that turns the handset into a personal assistant.

Google had voice commands a year ago

“But wait,” the Android users are crying out. “Google has voice services too!” Indeed, Android devices do have similar voice services. Voice search is native to the platform and blew me away when I first used it on a Google Nexus One in Jan. 2010. Even in a crowded room, I could search the web with ease just by speaking to my phone. And in August of last year, Google introduced Voice Actions, a downloadable Android app that extended voice services to speech commands. Here’s a video demo to illustrate the functionality.

At a quick glance, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Voice Actions appear similar. In many ways, they are. Here’s a quick breakdown of the similar functions that both services provide through speech:

  • Creation of text messages and emails.
  • Get navigation directions.
  • Call a contact.
  • View a map of a particular area.
  • Write a note.
  • Play music.
  • Perform a web search.

Google’s Voice Actions also includes the ability to search for and call a business in one step, plus it can be used to open a web page. Siri comes close to opening web pages; when I say “go to yahoo.com” Siri does a Google search for the site, making it one tap away.

So what’s different about Siri?

That’s pretty much the end for Google Voice Actions, which requires users to memorize the exact commands much like Microsoft’s(s msft) Voice Command for Windows Mobile did back in its 2003 debut. It’s not difficult to do so, and the functionality is certainly useful. However, Siri can do even more and provides intelligence that Android doesn’t yet match. Compare the above video demo of Google’s solution with this introduction to Siri that Apple created; you’ll immediately notice that Siri isn’t simply a voice command system. Instead, it’s a semi-intelligent interactive assistant:

The biggest difference is the one that will likely have the most impact going forward; Siri’s use of natural language. Instead of memorizing set commands, Siri can understand questions, even if they’re asked in different ways. The speech engine works with conversational language, much like when speaking to a person.

For example, Siri will pull up my calendar items if I say, “What’s my schedule for today?” “Do I have any appointments?” or simply, “What’s next for me?” By allowing for this variance, I can get the specific information I want, though; the first case shows today’s calendar events, the second brings up a full week’s worth of calendar events, while the last phrase returned only my next appointment.

Note to pre-empt the inevitable comments the screen shot will generate: I use an Exchange setup for iOS Mail and have shared calendars; my wife and step-daughter have yoga and dance class, not me.

Rise of the machines and artificial intelligence

Siri’s real value is illustrated when scheduling a new event, although that’s just one example. Instead of blindly creating an appointment, Siri first checks the calendar for any conflicts and warns if it finds any. Plus, it will ask if you want to move the conflicting event. Because Siri uses high-level artificial intelligence (AI), it offers far more value, but does so in a way that’s natural, so even first-time smartphone owners can use it. Siri can also learn who’s important in your life. I can tell Siri to text my son and it will automatically create the message with his phone number; no need to speak his name.

Just like Google has done with Voice Actions for Android, Apple has integrated Siri with several native apps such as the phone, email, messaging, notes and web searches. Siri can search Google, but it also adds support for Wolfram Alpha, which provides answers to very specific questions. Asking Siri about the square root of a number, for example, will quickly return the answer from Wolfram Alpha.

Siri also works in iOS 5 with the Clock, Reminders and Apple’s new Find My Friends app. Instead of setting a recurring alarm, I’m now telling Siri when to wake me up in the morning, depending on how late I stay awake. You can ask for the local time or the time in a given location. Setting task reminders is simple but effective: You can tell Siri to remind you at a given time or simply say, “Remind me to take out the trash in 17 minutes.” And if your family members or friends are sharing their location, you can ask Siri where they are.

Siri is quite the comedian

On the less productive side — but no less entertaining — is Siri’s personality. By contrast, Google’s Voice Actions has none because there’s no AI involved. Here are some of the fun questions and answers I’ve had in conversations with Siri:

Me: What’s the best mobile phone?
Siri: The one you’re holding.

Me: What’s your favorite color?
Siri: My favorite color is… well, I don’t know how to say it in your language. It’s sort of greenish, but with more dimensions.

Me: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Siri:  I try to be satisfied with what I have, Kevin.

Me: What do you look like?
Siri: Does my appearance matter to you, Kevin?

OK, so these little chats don’t help my productivity levels, but it’s fun to see how Siri will respond in conversation. And it illustrates the level of contextual understanding and AI that’s built in to the product. The product reminds me of the vision I had last year when writing a GigaOM Pro article about smartphones powering robots (subscription required): With sensors and connectivity, our smartphones have “senses” plus access to near limitless information. Thanks to Siri, they now have intelligence to understand our questions in everyday language and are even fun to interact with.

Google: It’s your move

Remember that Siri is only a beta product. Apple is sure to improve and expand Siri’s capabilities going forward. Google can rely on third-party apps to do the same — think Vlingo, which is experiencing a sudden surge is use thanks to Siri — but a better approach would be for Google to mature Android’s native voice functionality. Yes, third-party software may help sell phones to a degree, but native functionality, especially when it looks magical to the mass market, will have a greater impact.

As a side note, I had decided before the iPhone 4S launch that I might pass on it if Apple didn’t boost the screen size as I had hoped it would. My tired old eyes prefer a larger display and I can also type faster on a bigger software keyboard. Siri, however, mitigates this to a point. The more I use Siri, the less I look at the iPhone’s screen, because Siri provides spoken feedback. Additionally, iOS 5 adds a voice input button on the keyboard, similar to Android. Using the speech-to-text engine has me typing less than ever, because it’s extremely accurate and appears faster than Google’s own speech recognition engine.