What Makes a Good Personal Assistant App?
Personal assistant apps (PAA’s) are sought after for so many different types of purposes that it almost seems a cop out to say that what makes a good one depends on who is using it and what they are using it for.
After all, virtual assistant apps are tools that we install on our portable devices and that we delegate certain planning and decision-based activities to. In return we expect that the machine learning algorithms of the applications will make better or at least as good decisions as we do.
We can make a preliminary definition of a good PAA as an Android/iPhone or web-based decision-making app that has software that does a good enough job of servicing our habits and predicting our needs that we find ourselves dependent upon it.
That will be the standard that we use to assess five popular digital assistant apps in this article.
1. Google Now
The search engine leader’s rival to Apple’s personal assistant offerings, Google Now, is the strongest Apple competitor with an impressive set of features. Supported on iOS, Android and the desktop Google Now offers some of the most impressive PAA capabilities.
The interface implements a series of “Now” cards that provide the user with easy to access single page information snippets of popular and selectable items such as weather, traffic, upcoming appointments, flights, hotels, restaurants, car rentals and shipment statuses. When added to its rich voice command interface, Google Now comes across as a high expectation fulfilling PAA.
It’s worth mentioning that Google acquired artificial intelligence (AI) power house, DeepMind in 2014. The business deal gave Google access to the London-based firm’s advanced AI research and architectures. DeepMind’s public commitment has been to use their intelligent software technologies to improve the user experiences on portable devices, including the functionality of the Google Now application’s offerings.
Google announced in the first week of March this year, that Google Now would begin offering OCR capabilities increasing the command inputs to which it can respond.
As impressive an offering as it currently is, Google Now is definitely only in its early phases of showing its PAA potential.
2. Apple Siri
Apple’s extremely popular Siri PAA, which is a predecessor of Google Now, has been integrated into the Apple iOS since version 4. Siri also comes pre-installed on the firm’s wearables via their watchOS.
This is the PAA with a personality. In fact, Siri’s personality has been the subject of much debate because while it comes across as overly servile, it functions exceptionally well.
It supports 21 built-in languages and that capability is expanded by its user programmability. Some of Siri’s more interesting features include reminder, photo album search, iTunes store search, restaurant locater, and sports and weather retrieval.
Siri is definitely innovative and if it was natively supported outside of iOS, it would definitely be a formidable opponent for Google Now.
Quip is a PAA that focuses on social media integration. It allows users to easily share documents making it more of a collaborative tool. But its planning and calendar capabilities move it more towards a hybrid of productivity tool and PAA. Quip is popular portable office suite with Instagram, Facebook and Quora. It’s also supported on iOS and Android giving it the benefit of platform collaboration across those platforms.
4. Microsoft Cortana
Windows 10 automatically installs its PAA offering, Cortana. This PAA supports natural language search. It also features a nice reminder tool that prompts the user to select attributes that Cortana uses to categorize the reminder entries. The Cortana PAA can also track packages and flight itineraries that it is aware of. And, like its rival virtual assistant apps, Cortana can set alarms, fetch weather, get directions and look up facts upon request.
Cortana is also available in the Google Play and Apple iTunes store. The core offerings are not as mature as either Siri or Google Now, making it infeasible to recommend it over those two rivals at this point. It does show a lot of promise and perhaps after a few more updates, it may be a challenge to their PAA’s.
5. Sherpa Next
Sherpa Next is a feature packed, leader of the pack in terms of functionality. It supports the standard weather, sports, appointments and reminders core offerings.
Its natural language support sets it apart from its competitors. This PAA responds to voice requests in a manner that is nearly human. A request to “take me to my next meeting” results in a friendly voice response “I will take you to the next meeting in your agenda. Make sure that it is correct.” The appointment is displayed for the user’s confirmation.
Sherpa’s proactive “prediction” support based upon its machine learning algorithms are probably the most sophisticated of any PAA on the market right now. Learning by studying your habits, Sherpa Next is even able to make intelligent social network suggestions. It’s also available for download in the Android and Apple stores.
The one not so small issue with this excellent PAA, keeping it from receiving the highest ranking, is that it exists only in beta release and that’s been the case for the past few years. It’s understandable that the company would want to get everything just right before moving to production version, but recommending a product that is an indeterminate time frame away from final release is a tough call, even when it has gotten between 1 and 5 million downloads in the Play Store.
And the winner is….
By far Google Now is the winner of this PAA review. Google’s reputation, cross platform support, the stability of the PAA and its excellent feature offerings, new OCR support and long term potential all converge to give Google Now the much deserved recommendation of Best Personal Assistant App as of today.