Google’s search app for iPhone just got a big upgrade, with improved voice search that supports natural-language questions, just like Apple’s Siri.
I tried it on my iPhone 5, and it’s pretty slick. When I asked, “What movies are playing tonight?” the app almost immediately spit back a search-results page with local movie listings on top. Siri stuttered on the same question, first digesting the words, then showing some text that said it was looking into it, then finally showing a neatly formatted list of films.
Google’s app can answer a healthy range of questions too. It can tell you the weather, flight status, sports scores and stocks. It knows trivia, translates languages, does math and performs unit conversions. It can suggest places to eat and give the dates of upcoming events. In terms of answering questions, it’s a pretty close rival to Siri, and it’s often faster to respond.
Yet I don’t see myself using it on the iPhone 5.
That’s partly due to the nature of Apple’s iOS software. On the iPhone, you can’t add widgets or otherwise tell third-party apps to do things directly from the home screen. That means you can’t run a Google voice search without opening the app and then tapping the search button. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s an extra step or two compared with using Siri, which can launch from anywhere.
The bigger issue is that Google’s app doesn’t do everything that Siri does. While the app can look up information using Google’s Knowledge Graph, it can’t set reminders, make restaurant reservations, create calendar appointments or pen messages in Gmail. It can’t remind me of upcoming appointments or events or warn me about traffic. And for directions — the one thing I use voice search for the most — Google’s app doesn’t lead to Apple Maps but to its own Web app, which doesn’t do turn-by-turn voice guidance. (And for all the griping about Apple Maps, it works fine in my neck of the woods.)
So yes, essentially I’d love for Google’s search app to become more like Google Now and the full Google voice search on Android phones — a full-blown virtual assistant rather than a basic search tool. I don’t need an app that’s faster at some of the things Siri does but one that’s better overall. (As an aside, though, if Google’s voice-search capabilities made it into the Chrome browser for iOS, that would be awesome.)
Still, there is one good thing to come of Google’s new iOS voice search, whether you use it or not. As John Gruber points out, it’s a target for Apple — something whose speed the Siri team should aspire to match. If Google’s app motivates Apple to whip Siri into shape, everyone’s better off.