Siri was always the main draw for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 4S. The voice assistant set the 4S apart from the previous year's iPhone 4. Siri helps users organize their digital lives and find information fast. That's a big deal.
Arch-rival Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) isn't sitting idly by to let Siri crush the Android platform's feature list singlehandedly. Android phones have been featuring a Siri-like voice assistant for some time. My aging Samsung Galaxy S2 comes with a voice-command and search tool called "Samsung Voice," and a similar tool was built into the Jelly Bean version of Android. So Google is keeping up with the Joneses, at least. (Siri Jones?)
But why stop there? Google also built voice searches into the stand-alone Google Search tool in Apple's app store. The first version of this was pretty primitive -- the built-in voice search simply tried to figure out what you were saying and dumped the result in a basic Google search box. Nothing fancy, and hardly a threat to Siri.
But that app just got a much-needed update.
Do what I mean, not what I say!
The new version shows what your iDevice thinks you're saying in real time, giving you a chance to correct mistakes. The search engine then dips into a custom pool of objects, culled from the so-called "knowledge graph" that Google has created from billions of online searches. This helps your phone, iPod, or iPad understand what you mean.
For instance, "How tall was Abraham Lincoln?" reaches for a fundamentally different kind of results than "What does Stonehenge look like?" The first query returns a simple fact (6'4", in case you forgot), and that fact is also spoken aloud by a slightly robotic female voice. The second search presents a grid of photos of the ancient English monument with some guidance from our robotic girl: "Check out these images of Stonehenge."
That's what the Google app does for very specific queries. For searches with less of an obvious focus, you'll just get the regular old Google-approved list of result links, perhaps with a section of news or images near the top.
This makes Google's search tool very comparable to Siri. In fact, Siri pulls most of her data from Google's search engine anyhow,so the tools are cousins, or maybe even sisters at heart.
Yeah, but can you do this?
Apple still holds one big advantage in the ability to open other apps and manage your iPhone via Siri -- something you largely can't do with Google's tool. On the other hand, this thing runs on any iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch that runs operating system 4.3 or later, which is pretty much all of them at this point. Most iStuff has moved on to iOS 5 or even 6 by now:
But only a handful of devices come with Siri installed. The software probably could run on an iPhone 4, iPad 2, or 4th-generation iPod Touch, but Apple has reserved their premium voice assistant for newer devices. So Google's voice search could give Siri-starved owners of older gear an almost comparable experience without investing hundreds of dollars in unnecessary hardware upgrades.
You could also argue 'til the cows come home over the quality of each product's voice recognition. Siri is based on firmly established speech recognition software from Nuance Communications (NASDAQ:NUAN), a toolkit that has been hand-polished for three decades. Google's machine learning solution rests on billions of voice samples from online voice searches, the defunct Google 411 service, and other Google-owned input sources.
I can't say much about Siri's recognition skills since all of my family's Apple gadgets are just a tad too old to have the software. Google's voice tools handle my charming Swedish accent very well, even in noisy environments. Feel free to compare and contrast at home, then report your findings in the comments below.
What's the big deal?
This thing will certainly not kill Apple. If anything, Google just made Apple's gadgets better with this improved search tool. Hardly a fatal blow, if you ask me.
But this release shows the philosophical differences between Apple and Google in a very simple and effective way. Cupertino runs a hardware business where every move is calculated to sell you another gadget. Down the street in Mountain View, Google couldn't care less about unit sales as long as there's a steady flow of search queries and ad clicks coming in.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with either method -- they're just different approaches to monetizing the same mobile megatrend. Apple's fantastically profitable hardware has absolutely served the company well so far, though I believe Google's approach is more sustainable in the long run. Only time will tell, but I've backed my Apple and Google theses up with the appropriate CAPScalls.
Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out Anders' bio and holdings, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Nuance Communications, and Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.