by Bill Snyder

In Digital Assistant Faceoff, Google Now (Just) Edges Siri

Jul 25, 20143 mins
AndroidConsumer ElectronicsiOS

A Wall Street analyst puts Siri and Google Now to the test and found the differences to be slight, though both offerings have strengths and weaknesses.

Call me old fashioned, but unlike Joaquin Phoenix in the film “Her,” I’ll never fall in love with a computer, Apple’s Siri, or any other digital assistant. Siri is helpful, but does it work as well as Google Now? According to Gene Munster, a Piper Jaffray analyst who performed a rather painstaking analysis of the subject, there’s almost no difference between the two — though the Android version has a very slight edge.

Munster and his team tested the digital assistants by posing 800 questions to each and then rating them on their ability to interpret and answer each query. To see if ambient noise made a difference, they tested the phones both inside and outside. The questions centered on five categories: local information, commerce, navigation, general information, and OS commands.

Google Now correctly answered 86 percent of all questions, while Siri scored 84 percent. I’m not at all sure that’s a significant difference, but Munster gave Google Now a “B” grade, and Siri got a “B-“. Munster reported the results in a pair of investor notes that are not publicly available on the Web.

One issue Munster doesn’t address to my satisfaction is how well the assistants understand the speech of different users. Unlike real voice recognition software that understands you better as you use it, Siri and Google Now do their processing in the cloud and deal with information from millions of users. As a result, they don’t learn from individual users who may have different accents and pronunciations. Siri, for example, consistently writes “Ross” when I dictate my daughter’s name, “Roz.”

Google Now’s navigation, local, and general-information skills are its strongest capabilities, according to Munster. Siri is stronger in interpreting OS commands, such as song play, when the artist is mentioned in the query.

Siri can answer questions using two sources at once. In one example, Munster asked “Where is Mt. St. Helen?”The personal assistant provided information from both Apple Maps and Wikipedia.

In the past, “Google Now has had an advantage over Siri because it uses Google Search, Google Maps, and Google Play together to provide an integrated and comprehensive answer to queries,” Munster said. “Siri is catching up on this front.”

Munster noted that Siri does not sort search results by price or hours of availability. Google Now, however, gives users the ability to filter results based on price, location, rating and hours.

The real takeaway from Munster’s analysis isn’t so much the difference between the two systems, but the fact that they both do a difficult task (voice assistance) rather well.