Watch out, Siri: Google wants to put Assistant on iPhone

Apple won't allow it, or will it?

Apple, Google, Siri, iOS, Android, Assistant, Voice assistant
Credit: Apple

Google isn’t saying it will and Apple’s iOS developer guidelines say it can’t, but a senior Googler set the cat among the pigeons when he suggested the company would like to put its Assistant tech on iPhones.

Fanning the flames

It’s a rumor. Google product management director Gummi Hafsteinsson told Geekster, “I do not think we have anything to announce at this point, but I think the general philosophy is that we would like to have the Assistant available to as many people as possible." He was speaking at Mobile World Congress.

It would not be possible for Google to make its Assistant tech available through an iOS app under Apple’s existing App Store rules.

In part this is because Apple already offers its own system-level voice assistant, Siri; it is also because Google would need to secure permission to transmit your personal data as it sends your spoken question to its servers to get you a response.

Google could introduce Google Assistant as a Web service, in which case iOS users could access it using a browser. Web search is heading in this direction: Korean search engine, Naver, recently made a strategic investment in SoundHound, for example.

Contextual search

Google Assistant supports sophisticated, context-based search. This means you can ask it a question such as “what movies are on at the local cinemas”, it will provide an answer, and you can then contextualise the search, for example by asking to limit the list to films on show in the area that feature a specific actor or director.

The capacity for more intelligent spoken search is at present an advantage to Assistant. Google Assistant is now being extended to more Android devices, but is far from universal.

Apple’s Siri isn’t as good at this – you must ask it a completely different search question and you cannot contexualize within the results.

I do think Apple is working on this, as you can contextualize some searches when you use an Apple TV (“show me movies”, “just the good ones”).

Siri also enjoys the huge advantage of being available across 90 percent of all iOS devices and useful to five times as many people as Assistant. (It’s also less sexist).

A.I. smackdown

Voice assistants started as a nice to have but are becoming a must have. Huawei, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung and others all have one.

Competition in the space is intense, and Google now knows it needs to fight to maintain a good share in the industry, particularly as key Android vendors (such as Samsung) deploy their own voice A.I., rather than Google’s.

Another big player in voice, Amazon, is also staking space in mobile: Alexa will be on the Android-powered Huawei Mate 9 smartphone.

Google sees smart assistants as “part of an ongoing conversation with users,” Google CEO, Sundar Pichai said this week.

Within this it cannot ignore that the fragmented Android ecosystem and intense competition in this space is an existential threat for the search engine giant as consumers diversify the services they use for search.

Apple’s turn

We know Apple has been investing deeply in A.I. R&D at offices across the planet. We also expect significant improvements to Siri this June at WWDC.

This means that in order to keep pace, Google must ensure its solution is not only better than the current iteration of Siri, Cortana, Alexa, et al., but that it is better than the versions that are to come.

That’s going to be pretty hard to achieve when most of the global population speaks a different language, and Apple keeps its cards so close to its chest.

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