Hey, iPhone users: If Siri's not up to the task, you now have another option in intelligent assistants -- Google Now.
Unlike Siri, which responds only to voice commands, Google Now tries to anticipate users' needs, providing them information before they ask for it. Google added the feature, available on devices running its Android operating system since last summer, to its iPhone search app last week.
While I'm excited to see Google Now coming to Apple's handheld devices, neither it nor Siri is yet a truly complete digital assistant.
I use Siri fairly often, but I've long been frustrated by its many limitations. It's voice-recognition capability is spotty at best. There are lots of questions for which it simply doesn't know an answer, and plenty of requests for which it doesn't know how to respond. It interacts with only a handful of the thousands of applications available on the iPhone.
And unlike the best flesh-and-blood assistants, Siri doesn't try to anticipate your needs. Siri won't tell you when the Warriors are playing next unless you ask her. A truly intelligent assistant would know that you are a Warriors fan and alert you when they play next.
This is exactly what Google Now tries to do.
If you swipe up from the app's home page, you'll see a list of virtual cards, each with a bit of personalized information. On a recent afternoon, my cards alerted me of an upcoming soccer practice for my kids, told me the current weather, showed me what the traffic looked like along my route home and alerted me of the Warriors next game. The Warriors card even provided a link to purchase tickets.
And Google Now can potentially do a lot more. If you travel overseas, Google Now will tell you the exchange rate as well as the current time back home.
The more you use Google Now -- or Google's services -- the better the feature is supposed to anticipate your needs, learning your favorite teams, restaurant choices and regular public transit routes.
Maybe I need to spend more time with Google Now, but I found it disappointing, because it offered me relatively few customized alerts and some of those weren't even on point. I expected the feature to be much more helpful, given that Google already knows lots about me, because I'm a heavy user of Chrome, Gmail, Google Docs and many of the company's other products and services.
Google Now typically offered me just two or three cards at a time -- even when I asked it to show more. And some of these cards weren't helpful or weren't accurate. Google was slightly off when it came to my home address, for example; that wasn't a big deal, but my correct address is already stored on Google servers. And despite what Google Now thinks, I'm not actually a Warriors fan. As I've made publicly known for a long time, I'm a big fan of my hometown team, the San Antonio Spurs.
Google does allow you to correct such misperceptions. You can change the settings for particular cards to, say, specify a different favorite team or to change your commute preference from driving to public transit. And in some cases, the app allows you to adjust when it displays the cards. For example, you can tell it that you only want commute information before you head to work and not for when you return.
But it's not always clear how to prompt Google Now for additional cards. I wanted the app to display information on nearby restaurants, but couldn't figure out how to get it to do that. Although Google Now promises to offer information on movies that are of interest to you, it doesn't allow you to plug in those movies -- or prompt you for them. And unlike the version of Google Now for Android, the iPhone version doesn't offer any information on upcoming events.
Worse, Google Now doesn't tap into the iPhone's notification system. So the only way to know that you've gotten new cards is to launch the app.
Even if Google addressed such problems, Google Now wouldn't be a full replacement for Siri. At least on the iPhone, you can't use Google Now to send text messages, post updates to your social networks or launch applications.
So, while I'll likely use Google Now from time to time, Siri will probably remain the Girl Friday on my iPhone. But it's too bad the two assistants aren't on the same page.
Likes: Offers personalized information on traffic, upcoming appointments, sporting events and more without prompting; allows users to customize settings to specify favorite teams and timing of alerts; included in Google's search app, which also includes natural-language search.
Dislikes: Doesn't provide enough customizations; alerts aren't as personalized as one might expect; doesn't offer push notifications; doesn't provide "voice control" features such as the ability to send a text message or an update to Twitter.