Some of the biggest news to come out of Google I/O this week was that Google Assistant is coming to iOS, looking to take a shot at Siri, Apple’s own entrenched AI assistant. While Assistant has been available on Android for a while now, how does the AI assistant stack up against Siri when its forced to go head-to-head on Apple’s far more limited playing field? We put the two head-to-head.
One of the most important parts of any AI assistant is how easy it is to access. One of the biggest selling points of Amazon’s Echo hardware is the always-listening feature that lets Alexa always be on hand to respond to any queries or commands. On Android, Assistant has deep, OS-level hooks that make it more more accessible and functional. But on iOS, things are a little tougher.
Siri: On Apple’s hardware, Siri still has a massive home court advantage when it comes to actually starting the digital assistant. Namely, Siri is baked into iOS on a core level — its accessible from anywhere, whether you’re in an app or at your lock-screen by simply holding down the home button. Siri is also always listening, too, and can be activated anytime through a “Hey, Siri” command on newer iPhones (although the feature, like much of Siri these days, feels largely half-baked.)
Assistant: Google is making a big play here with Assistant, but it’s fighting an uphill battle here with the inherent limitations Apple has on iOS. That means that Assistant lives in the Assistant app. But Google is doing its best to put Assistant in as many places as possible: there’s an Assistant widget to quick launch the app, which is accessible from both the notification shade, the lock screen, and the home screen. Plus, there’s a 3D Touch action to also start Assistant.
Unlike when Siri first launched back in 2011, AI assistants can’t just work with a single device anymore. Working on an iPhone is one thing — but working across an entire ecosystem is a whole other ballgame.
Siri: The best thing that can be said about Apple’s assistant is that it exists on a variety of hardware platforms. If you’ve got an Apple Watch, a Mac, or an Apple TV, you can use Siri on it, but that’s about the extent of it. Siri on different platforms largely exist as separate things — you can’t use the native Siri on your iPhone to play a song on your Apple TV, for example, or use Siri on your Apple TV to make a call.
Controlling smart home utilities with Siri only works if manufacturers support Apple’s HomeKit, and you’ll need either an Apple TV or iPad to serve as a hub. Plus, you’re still locked strictly to Apple’s ecosystem — if Cupertino doesn’t make hardware for it (like, say, an Amazon Echo-like speaker), then you can’t use Siri on it.
Assistant: Obviously, just like Siri works with Apple stuff, Assistant works with Google stuff. That means Chromecast, Android phones, and of course, Google Home. But one of the announcements to Assistant at I/O was that third-party hardware manufacturers would be able to integrate Assistant into their own devices, which means that there could be a much larger ecosystem for Assistant in the near future.
Google also showed off how Assistant can work across multiple devices — using a Chromecast to display visual results from a Google Home, suggesting a more universal experience than Siri. How that will work in practice is still somewhat unclear, given that the feature doesn’t seem to be available yet (at least through Assistant on an iPhone.) But it speaks to Google’s larger ambitions of having a unified Assistant platform across all devices.
Of course, an assistant is only useful if it can actually assist you with things. And at this point, there’s basic table stakes that both platforms are able to accomplish — basic queries of the weather and sports scores, calendar reminders, alarms, etc. That said, there are clear differences between the two in terms of the extent of their abilities.
Siri: Siri is able to do more advanced queries like tell you the time difference between two cities or what the price of gasoline is in San Fransisco, typically drawing on resources like Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia to answer, but in practice I’ve generally find it easier and more reliable to just Google the question.
And most of Siri’s functional advantages — things like opening up apps or sending iMessages — stem from the aforementioned platform advantage than any intrinsic usefulness to Siri itself.
Assistant: Even with the limitations of iOS, Assistant gets a lot done. You can play videos in YouTube, add reminders and events through Google Calendar, and send emails through Gmail. Plus, there’s the usual AI assistant queries of stocks, the weather, and maps that’s common to both Siri and Assistant. Google has also tried its best to offer messaging and call support on iOS, but it can only get so far — both will get you 99 percent of the way there before passing you back to Apple’s apps for actually sending the message or placing a call. Meanwhile, things like setting an alarm just aren’t possible with Assistant on iOS, and others — like playing music, which shunts you over to YouTube — work, but are a bit of a hack.
But even putting aside those similarities, Assistant has the entire power of Google’s Knowledge Graph behind it, which means that the breadth of information it can answer is wider than Siri’s. Also, Assistant just seems to work better in my experience when it comes to both understanding words and responding quickly.
That said, some of the more impressive features of Assistant from Google I/O simply aren’t here yet. The impressive Google Lens augmented reality camera, or even simpler demos like the interactive Panera order seen on stage aren’t part of the app yet.
Amazon has really led the way with developer supporter when it comes to Alexa, with over 10,000 different third-party skills available. Siri and Assistant both have some third-party support, but both companies could stand to take a page from Amazon’s book here.
Siri: Apple finally added third-party developer support for Siri with iOS 10, but it’s still limited — developers can’t make Siri integrations for mapping or music apps, an intentional limitation that forces you to use Apple’s own Music and Maps services, even if you prefer Google and Spotify. Developers for Siri extensions are instead limited to seven categories of integration: ride book, messaging, photo search, payments, VoIP calling, workouts, and climate and radio. So even if you’d wanted to build a Siri extension to play Jeopardy or tell you how many people are in space right now, you can’t.
Assistant: Google also took things slowly when it came to building out Google Assistant and Google Home’s third-party abilities, but at I/O this year it opened the door for developers to make extensions for Assistant on both Home and phones. Plus, those actions won’t be targeted to specific devices — rather, if your hardware can support the skill (which could, say, require a screen to function), it’ll be able to access it. But it’s up to developers to actually build out the ecosystem.
Answering questions and search is only half the equation, though. AIs also need to be able to actively do things for you, make your life easier. Neither platform is outstanding at this yet, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on in the future both digital assistants continue to mature.
Siri: Siri is a mixed bag when it comes to actually accomplishing tasks for you. In theory, you can look up restaurant reservations or movie times through OpenTable or Fandango, but it will still fall on you to actually complete the task yourself. Other things, like booking an Uber can be done entirely through Siri, as can sending money through Square Cash or Venmo, but that’s pretty much as far as it can go.
Assistant: Like Siri, Assistant is also limited when it comes to actually doing things for you, at least for now, and some things that Siri can do — like summon an Uber — aren’t on Assistant for now. But, as mentioned before, Google has high hopes for what can eventually be done with assistant, like sending flowers or ordering lunch, but right now things are still extremely limited on an iPhone. But if Google (and the third party developers it needs to jump on board) can actually ship some of the integrations shown off at I/O this year, Assistant could get a huge leg up on Siri.
Directly comparing any third party AI assistant — whether from Google, Microsoft, or another company — to Siri is always going to be a tough proposition, given how locked down iOS is on a system level and Apple’s tight control over the platform.
As things stand right now, between Siri’s advantages when it comes to native integration to things like messaging and music, along with the system-wide availability that makes it accessible at any time means that in most cases, it’s easier to use Apple’s assistant. While Assistant does clearly best Siri when it comes to overall knowledge and support for Google services, (including Maps) the current implementation just isn’t so dramatically better at these tasks that it’s worth the extra inconvenience of working around Apple’s sandboxing.
That said, Google does have some seriously impressive ambitions for Assistant that could shift the scales in its favor. But those features aren’t here yet, and for what Assistant can do on iOS now, Siri — while not great — is good enough.