These 4 Intelligent Assistants Make Life Easier

Voice assistants have finally become mainstream.  Not only can we can now use voice commands on automated phone systems, much of the electronics available is starting to embrace voice as a way to control the experience.  

Here, I am going to look at the four most important voice assistants available now:  Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana.  We'll take a brief look at advantages and disadvantages of each one.

Siri Responding To Voice Commands

Siri is the veteran intelligent assistant, being around for five years and introduced way back with iOS 5 and iPhone 4S.  Siri works in your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch,  macOS Sierra computer, AppleTV and your CarPlay enabled vehicle audio system.  She often relies on the screen to relay answers to you and works as a personal communicator that you can ask to call or send a message.   

Siri is available in around 37 countries and  languages. You can choose different voices for the virtual assistant along with it's gender (although few people do).

Hold the Home button on your iPhone and speak your request.   You can also use hands-free mode on newer devices (and older devices when plugged in) with the phrase "Hey Siri...".  Apple TV has a special button on it's remote control for voice control. There is no hands free mode on Apple TV.

On iPad or iPhone Siri can be extended by third party developers (outside of Apple), through a regular App (running on the device). There are specific limits and extend-ability is only in several well defined areas (messaging, voice calling, ride booking, payments, workouts, and photos).  This extend-ability comes recently with iOS 10. The user must opt-in to any extensions.  Any developer can join the Apple Developer program to create Apps which can be controlled by Siri.  As developers request support for other domains, the company will surely open these areas up for voice control as well.

Alexa is the young beauty queen of the voice assistant party, arriving to the public in 2014. She comes in the form of the Echo, Dot, or Tap bluetooth speakers or the FireTV set top box sitting below your television.  Alexa can be extended in many ways by third party developers, through the creation of custom Skills, which operate in the cloud (including, but not limited to AWS).  Alexa does not have access to your personal data, as these devices are intended for hands free use in a large room, and anybody in the room can use it. 

The brilliance of the Echo device is that it is the first fully hands-free intelligent assistant, always on (it is plugged into the wall), and always willing to respond. Unlike your phone which did not start out hands-free, and may not have battery (or network connectivity). Furthermore Amazon did an incredible job of luring third party home automation products to integrate with Alexa. People found it easier to say "Alexa, turn on my living room lights", rather than to have to reach to their phone to tap a (virtual) button to do the same thing.

Alexa was designed from the start to not have any screen or output device. User's don't often know there is a Companion App for iOS and Android (and a nearly identical website) which you can review all the interaction you have carried out with Alexa, along with additional output from certain queries you have asked. 

Alexa is available for use with American English, UK English and German. There is only one voice of female gender available. 

The Echo is used hands-free, and uses a wake-word to 'wake the device up', and start responding to commands. The default wake word is "Alexa" and you can change it at-will to "Amazon", or "Echo" (but that is it). 

Alexa has a complete API and software development kit for creating Skills which extend the system. It allows the developer to choose the proper phrases, along with the output to display in the companion App. Extensions are much broader than those for Siri, but can be less user friendly. For example, you must ask the skill a question, such as "Alexa, ask SuperMapper how do I get my data?".  Any developer can get an account to write Alexa skills and Amazon has created a developer portal with many examples and forums for help.

Alexa is pretty good at ordering things from Amazon (surprise!), but you can also setup a skill to order Domino's pizza.  Welcome to the future!  One should expect that this feature will get even better and allow you to buy products without having to even look at a screen.

Google Assistant is the current generation of Google's intelligent personal assistant. It is only available on the Pixel Android phone and the new Google Home device.   It can carry out most of the same commands as Siri, and can also respond to specific pieces of information (using Google Search, duh!). Some say that Google is better at recognizing pieces of information in a conversation. It is the latest incarnation of Google's assistant, the previous version being Google Now, which lacks a conversational aspect, but is very good at answering questions.

Google Home  is a small device that looks like a bottle of liquid soap, and sits on your counter top and responds to voice commands and messages, like Amazon Echo. It is always waiting, and will respond to a user with the wake word "Ok Google...". It is the competitor to the Echo from Amazon.

Google has said they are going to open to third party developers to add support for voice.  This will be an exciting area, which I hold with great anticipation.  The limits to this extend-ability is not yet available. .


Cortana is the virtual assistant found in Windows 10, XBox One, and Windows Phones. It is Microsoft's entry in this amazing field and, named after a character in the Halo videogame franchise.  In a great gesture of openness, there are mobiles apps (called Cortana) for iOS and Android to use Cortana.  There is only one voice available, which mimics the female voice Cortana is named after from Halo.

Cortana defaults to Bing search (no surprise!) when it looks for information on your behalf. It often uses the screen to output information, and is alot less chatty than the other intelligent assistants. 

Cortana is available in eight spoken languages.  One key determinant for Cortana, is the ability of the computer it is working on. We all know that all Windows 10 computers have different quality parts. How good is the built-in microphone on your computer? It will determine how well Cortana works.  Less expensive computers have less expensive microphones which cause Cortana problems in understanding commands.

Cortana can be extended on Windows, but a developer must first get approval from Microsoft (still waiting!).  There is no information as to what requirements are necessary. These extensions appear to operate on the client (running Windows 10). It will be extremely exciting to see how this pans out.

There are many subtle differences between each of  these virtual assistants.  From a big, global level they all do the same thing. When you start using them you realize each has their strengths and weaknesses. The question of which one you should use breaks down to what type of device do you own and use? That can make it easier to figure out which virtual assistant is for you. If you have an iPhone, you are probably going to work with Siri. For Windows 10 users, it is Cortana.

So far, the most open of these virtual assistants seems to be Alexa. With the ability for third parties to develop extensions that live in the cloud, there is an incredible opportunity for companies to integrate their software into this ecosystem. A company (or individual) can create their own Echo device, for free. If you want to build the next great bluetooth speaker system, you can add Alexa capabilities free of charge. To start with, you can create your own Alexa with a $30 Raspberry computer.

Each vendor wants to find the best way to allow third parties to add abilities to their assistants. They each also have their own idea as to the best way to do this. As usual, the market will probably decide which is doing the best job.

One thing that is constant with each of these intelligent assistants is that they are constantly changing, and becoming more useful. The power of these systems is that voice recognition is mostly done in the cloud, and not by the actual device you are holding. This allows the technology to constantly test new algorithms to become smarter.  

Stay tuned in to to keep up with the amazing changes we are experiencing in voice assistants.


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