01 October 2017


    The lowdown on virtual assistants

    The virtual assistants that live inside our smartphones are becoming more extraordinary every day. What was once considered gimmicky is now a helpful tool with real-world applications.

    There are five noteworthy virtual assistants on the market at the moment (with more sure to come), but telling the difference between Siri from Bixby can be quite an ordeal. 

    We’ve spoken about digital assistants before, but we’ve not looked at which of them is actually most useful in South Africa right now. Plus, with Apple’s recent announcement of a new speaker, called the HomePod, there’s a new contender vying for our attention, our voiced instructions and our hard-earned cash.

    Introducing the band

    There are five names to know when it comes to digital virtual assistants: Apple has Siri, Samsung has Bixby, Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Google Voice Assistant, and Amazon has Alexa. Apple, Google and Samsung’s offerings are primarily intended for mobile phones, although Apple has started integrating Siri into its laptop and desktop computer operating system, too.

    Microsoft Cortana’s primary playground is on laptops and desktops running Windows, and Amazon’s Alexa is built into its Echo speaker range.

    Of these, you’re likely to encounter all but Alexa. Amazon doesn’t officially sell the Echo devices here yet, and if you import one you’ll have to trick it into thinking you’re in a supported region (like the US or UK) for it to work. Even then, the functionality will be limited.

    Band on the run

    But buy an iPhone, iPad, MacBook, Windows PC, or Android phone and a voice assistant comes standard. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Voice Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby are probably the most useful because they work with the thing most of us have on us all the time: our smartphones.

    You can use them to set alarms, countdown timers or reminders, look things up online, or dictate messages. But the level of support varies a lot. Siri, for example, has been opened to app developers, meaning it can now work with non-Apple apps. So, where you used to only be able to dictate messages for Apple’s iMessage with Siri, you can now use it for WhatsApp, too.

    Google’s offering is available on Android and Apple devices, but works more seamlessly on Android. It’s probably the best of the lot right now when it comes to not only recognising what you’re asking it, but understanding context. So, if you ask about the most recognisable tourist attraction in Cape Town, it’ll tell you it’s Table Mountain. Ask "how tall is it?" within a minute and Google’s Voice Assistant still knows you’re talking about Table Mountain. Vodacom's new range of devices, which include the Smart N8, all run on Android Nougat, meaning they come with their own inbuilt VA, courtesy of Google, ready and waiting to talk to you. 

    Samsung’s Bixby, which is the newest arrival on the virtual assistant scene, is still rudimentary compared to its rivals' offerings, but Samsung’s working hard to change that. And Bixby offers something the others don’t: Bixby Vision. Using the camera on the Galaxy S8 or S8+, Bixby Vision can offer on-the-fly translation of text (like Google Translate) or information about the thing you’re pointing your phone at, like what it is, where to buy it, or pictures of similar things from Pinterest.

    Music and obedience

    The next big move for virtual assistants is into our homes through audio gear. Amazon’s taken the lead here with the Echo range of devices, which now includes not just speakers but a device with a display, for those times you need to see instead of hear results. Google has followed up with its Home speaker, and Apple recently announced the HomePod, a speaker that promises not just an integrated voice assistant, but high-end sound, too.

    Why should you be excited about the Apple HomePod? Because it’s the smart speaker that’s most likely to be readily available in South Africa, and with Siri already offering a pair of South African voices (and an understanding of our accents), it may well prove to be the one that works the best.