Android just blew past the iPhone

Commentary: Google's additions to its mobile software in voice recognition alone will push the platform far beyond where iOS is today. But Apple has a chance to strike back.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Jessica Dolcourt
5 min read

Google's digital voice assistant was already miles ahead of Apple's Siri even before Google's announcements on Wednesday at its annual I/O conference. But given what the search giant showed off yesterday, Siri will shrink further in Google's rearview mirror in the near future.

What we currently call Google Now is getting another name, Google Assistant -- and it's going to be in an Echo-like speaker called Google Home, as well as in your Android phone and tablet. But wherever you find it, Google Assistant looks like it'll run circles around Siri, and also Amazon's Alexa.

To that end, here are the three big ways

is leaving Apple's iOS in the dust.

Better search: Accurate, on-the-money results

Google made its name in search, so it stands to reason it was already ahead of the game here. Just now I asked both Siri on the iPhone 6S and Google Now on the Samsung Galaxy S7 this question: When was the Eiffel Tower built?

Enlarge Image

While Siri (at right) technically answered my question, Google Now answered my question two different ways and gave me tools to quickly explore more.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Siri presented the correct Wikipedia link, which does save me a step. But if I want to look up something else, I need to exit Siri and open a browser. Google, on the other hand, gave me an easy-to-read card while simultaneously reading out the answer ("Construction for the Eiffel Tower began January 28, 1887"), followed by Google search links below. Since voice search lives in the browser, I can jump to images and video, or start a new text or voice search altogether. The info is accurate, and helpful.

Better AI: Google Assistant connects the dots

If Google already has the advantage in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, think of how much richer and more satisfying search will be when it becomes even more solicitous of your needs. Why yes, Google, I would like to buy tickets to "Hamilton," thank you. (Now can you please pay for them, too?)

That, in a nutshell, is the promise of Google Assistant, a catch-all name for software that tries to make your life easier. You already see this kind of helpful behavior when Google Now ("OK, Google") tells you that traffic is bad and you should really leave for your meeting. But soon, the software will be able to handle longer conversations, or at least respond to your searches and requests with proactive follow-up suggestions.

Google I/O 2016: Daydream, Home and other big takeaways (pictures)

See all photos

For example, maybe you've said, "OK, Google. What's my schedule?" It replies that you have dinner plans with Dave in two minutes. Then, without having to say "OK, Google" again, you can ask it to text Dave that you're running late. You won't have to break your your stride to initiate separate commands; Google will remember what you've said and build off both of your requests.

Yes, Google's on-stage I/O demo (and its Google Home promo reel) put the technology's best face forward in controlled demos. Whether it works that well in real life when it becomes available later this year remains to be seen.

But if it works even half as well, then hey, they had me at "OK, Google."

More convenient: Instant Apps brings a better web to you

Google's new Instant Apps also has huge potential for improving your on-device life with very little effort. And for anyone who's ever been exasperated by a low-grade mobile website -- or, worse, pinching and zooming through a desktop site on your phone's screen -- it could be a godsend.

Let's say you see a link for a shopping site or video service. Without you having to do anything other than tap a link, you'll be whisked away to a better-looking mobile app experience, basically a slice of the Android app, but delivered via the Web. You don't need to own this app, Google's software will make you feel like you're already in it (on participating sites).

Watch this: With Android Instant Apps, you can use a program without downloading it

Instant apps are especially good for buying things because, once you're looking at the Instant App version, you can use any credit card you've already registered with Android Pay to buy your shoes and shirts with a simple tap. You won't have to fumble in your wallet and type in that long credit card number anew.

When you think about how many apps you have taking up space on your device, and how many you actually use, Instant Apps does double duty by giving you a smoother experience while also helping you avoid having to download new apps you'll hardly use -- and maybe freeing up space on your phone, by making some apps obsolete.

Even if Google does extend this to any device using its search engine (for now it's Android only), Apple users won't benefit as much if they use Apple Pay instead of Android Pay.

Apple's chance to prove me wrong


Apple has a chance to show its stuff next month at WWDC.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

But wait, you say. Instant Apps notwithstanding: Google search, Google Now and (presumably) Google Assistant are available on non-Android devices. And Assistant sounds like yet another of those AI "bots" that are all the rage in 2016: Facebook's chat bots, Microsoft's Tay, Soundhound's Hound and the upcoming Viv -- just to name a few.

True. And yes, you can get them now (or someday) on iPhone as well as Android. But only one remains the default that the respective phone can recognize automatically, be it with a home button double tap or a voice prompt. And that's where an Android phone with Google Assistant, right now, looks to have the advantage over Apple's Siri.

At least, that's how it looks for the next few weeks. Apple could prove me wrong by the time Google releases it improvements to the Android N software this fall (or spring, if you're Down Under) -- Apple still has about a month until its own WWDC conference and another four months before its usual September event, where the company will likely reveal its next-generation flagship iPhone(s).

Apple would have to match Google's digital assistant in both what it can do and how well it can do it, two areas that Siri has struggled with as Google Now has soared.

(Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)

Even after Google releases Assistant and Instant Apps, Android still won't be totally automated. For example, I can't open a new Google Doc with my voice, dictate its contents and then share it with my boss. But with their native access to a deep database of information, easy-to-understand responses, and proactive follow-through with Google's digital assistant, Google's Android phones will save me time when I use them for future fact-finding and small daily tasks.

These are invaluable benefits, and things I don't see Apple mastering any time soon.