At Apple’s recent product announcement event, the company revealed some product stats. Among the numbers shared was this tidbit on Siri usage: The virtual voice assistant receives a whopping one billion requests a week.
It’s an impressive number, no doubt, but it doesn’t mean that the virtual assistant—or any of its competitors—is a true success yet. That’s partly because many users don’t need to rely on Apple’s Siri (not to mention Microsoft’s Cortana or Google voice-based search) on a daily basis—a survey a few years back even found that 85% of iPhone users had never even used Siri. More than anything, though, voice assistants still don’t seem to work as well as they should.
“[These technologies] are still in their very early growth and frankly get more wrong than right,” says analyst Jeff Kagan. “They don’t understand the questions and don’t provide the right answers more times than not.” Whether it’s Google Now not understanding a speaker’s accent or Siri providing a list of search results that requires you to look at your phone, the process of using voice for search and other shortcuts simply isn’t seamless.
The fact that heavyweights like Apple, Google, and Microsoft (MSFT) are still perfecting their products hasn’t dissuaded other companies entering the fray with their own assistant-like technologies. Amazon (AMZN), for instance, has built its Alexa voice assistant into products such as the Echo speaker and its new Fire TV box, letting users find content and control playback with spoken commands. And then there’s Facebook, which offers a completely different take on the virtual assistant with its M service, employing humans to suggest restaurants and more from within the Messenger app.
Integrating support for voice commands is clearly important, both because it provides a better user experience and it enables software makers like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) to serve up information via its own applications, all the while gathering more information about your behaviors and interests. But what’s less clear is how soon these voice controls will become smart enough to handle any question or command that’s thrown at them.
Voice assistants have already found a footing in cars, with Apple’s Siri integrated into models from BMW, Chevy, and more. Considering the positive safety implications of a hands-free system for search, in-car controls and more, this space could help expedite an improvement in the technology—though it’s worth pointing out that voice assistants have been found to be increase distraction on the road as well. Still, an iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone is a plenty capable device even without its respective voice assistant, but in the car Siri and others can serve an essential role in keeping users connected.
But despite bumps in the road, Kagan suggests that voice assistants are here to stay: “Today is the day we will someday look back at and laugh at the same way we do when we think about our great-grandparents struggling with their first Ford Model T,” says Kagan.
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