The Pros and Cons of Digital Personal Assistants

By Steve Kelley

Using the Digital Personal Assistant, Siri

Whether or not you use one of Apple’s iOS gadgets (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch), no doubt you’ve heard of the digital personal assistant named "Siri?" If you’ve been hiding from the world of tablets and smartphones, Siri was one of the first comprehensive voice command applications enabling users to interact with their device by speaking to them. Siri was not the first application to do this when it debuted in 2011, but it was the first with a more human-sounding voice and more realistic commands. With each upgrade to the iOS operating system on the Apple gadgets, Siri has gotten better and added increasing capabilities. For example, users may send a text message or e-mail using voice commands, check their calendar, open other applications, and turn various settings off and on. As a digital personal assistant, Apple set the standards high with Siri, but today there is some wonderful competition between digital personal assistants!

The Ultimate Smackdown Battle

The Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP) forwarded VisionAware a link to their very entertaining and informative video "The Ultimate Smackdown Battle Between Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa", which got me thinking about this comparison of digital assistants.

Why not add Google’s virtual assistant "OK Google" as well? As luck would have it, Marques Brownlee of MKBHD recorded a straightforward video comparison of the Google Now "OK Google" digital assistant with Apple’s Siri. Although the MKBHD version had no focus on accessibility features and is a bit less entertaining than the CCVIP "Smackdown" it does a great job of comparing how Siri, on the Apple devices, and "OK Google" on the Android devices, compare and contrast in their responses to user’s voice commands. If you watch the videos you’ll see that each of the digital assistants performs many of the same basic tasks. For example, Siri, OK Google, and Alexa each will tell you the time, weather, transcribe a simple list, set a timer, add an event to a calendar, and read scheduled events using the appropriate voice commands yet each is different enough to warrant further exploration.

Similarities in the Personal Assistants

echo device pictured next to white coffee cup. The echo is round and approximately 3 times taller than the cup and about the same girth as the cup

Let’s start with the similarities. Each digital assistant works with a different device for the most part. Alexa works with the Amazon Echo devices (Echo, Tap, and Dot); Siri works with the Apple iOS devices (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch); and Google Now ("OK Google") works with Android phones and tablets. Each requires a connection to the Internet. In the case of the Amazon Echo, the only possibility is a WiFi connection. Siri and "OK Google" will connect to the Internet using either WiFi or through the cellular Internet connection provided on the phone or tablet. It is important to note that without an Internet connection the digital personal assistants may as well be home sick!

Not one of personal assistants is a screen reader, and this is often very confusing. Both the iOS and Android devices have a screen reader —VoiceOver on the iOS devices and TalkBack on the Android. With a screen reader on, the gestures used with the device change significantly, and the text on the screen is read using gestures and information typed into the device is often "echoed" back by the device. The voices used with the screen readers is different than those used by the digital personal assistants. Alexa, like the other two digital assistants, may read text at times, such as from an article in Wikipedia, but it too is not a screen reader.

Each digital assistant recognizes specific voice commands and performs a function for the user. For example, all three will create a shopping list if the voice command, "Create a shopping list," is used. Dictate a short list of items and each will record that information into a text file. Each will do it slightly differently and provide access to it in a different way. Siri will create the list in the Notes app and will read it back if you use the correct command. Alexa will save the note on the corresponding Alexa app and likewise will read it back with a voice command. "OK Google", on my device, stores the note in the Gmail app, but will not read it with a voice command. To have it read would require turning on TalkBack, the Android screen reader.

Big Differences in the Personal Assistants

Alexa, on the Amazon Echo, is considerably different from the other two in several regards—the hardware in which Alexa lives is not a tablet and the overall learning curve for the Echo devices seems less steep. Alexa is currently only available in the Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot products (three cylindrical devices each with various hardware features). Although the Tap is rechargeable and is portable, in the same sense that a six inch Bluetooth speaker may be portable, none of the three is designed to be put in a pocket or purse the way a tablet or phone is. These are devices that will be used on a desk or table and the primary interaction after the initial setup is by voice, just speaking to the device. With a list of commands handy, a user may immediately begin getting meaningful information from Alexa. For a more in-depth comparison of the Amazon devices that use Alexa, take a look at the comparison in Pocket-lint Amazon Echo vs Amazon Tap vs Echo Dot: What's the Difference?.

If one of the user’s goals is the ability to send a text message or an email using voice commands, then Alexa will not be a good choice, because to date, it is not in her job description. Likewise, Alexa’s ability to search the web seems somewhat more limited. A specific search, such as "Abraham Lincoln on Wikipedia," a web-based encyclopedia, or "Who won the Patriots games yesterday?" will result in an accurate response. A more general question such as, "Which vitamins do doctors recommend for arthritis?" may get no response from Alexa. "OK Google" and Siri, on the other hand, will return a list of possible websites with suggested answers to the question. Although the Amazon Echo appears to be easier to learn, the setup process will require someone with tablet or computer skills in order to download and configure the Alexa app as part of the initial setup and later to add "Skills" which is what Amazon calls the applications installed on these devices. For example, to have articles read from the Huffington Post, a user will first need to install the skill, named "HuffPost," using the Alexa app on a computer, smartphone, or tablet and know to use the voice command "Alexa open HuffPost," to have Huffington Post articles read. For a User Guide and more comprehensive list of commands to use with Alexa, check out the Help and Feedback pages at Amazon.com.

One of the most interesting "Skills" to be added to the Amazon Echo family of devices is the "Ask My Buddy" alert system. When installed, Ask My Buddy permits the Amazon Echo to contact a family member by phone, text, or email. While it does not send a custom message, an automated message is sent to a specific contact, or all contacts listed during the initial setup, alerting them that the user is seeking assistance. There is currently no charge for this Skill and the service, and it seems to be an extra way to simplify contacting family members.

Additional Yet Smaller Differences in the Personal Assistants

The major differences between "OK Google" and Siri may ultimately come down to personal preferences. Each works from either a tablet or smartphone connected to the Internet so to some degree the user must know the basics of the device it is being used on. "OK Google" seems to have made great strides in the last year or two in that the response time for voice commands is very quick and the ability to ask questions more conversationally has improved over earlier versions. The MKBHD video referenced above remarks on response time, ability to understand voice commands or requests, and the tendency for "OK Google" to read out answers as opposed to displaying them on the screen which often seems to be the case with many of Siri’s responses. For example, Siri often will respond to questions requiring a web search "OK, here’s what I found on the web," followed by a list of results printed on the screen. These results, of course, may be magnified using the Zoom feature or read with VoiceOver, the Apple screen reader.

MKBHD also mentioned a greater "conversational flow" during the interaction with "OK Google". My experiences too tend to bear this out as well, although this is subjective and really depends on what types of questions are being asked.

Until recently the overall accessibility of the Apple devices has been superior to Android accessibility in many regards. It seems most likely that users will pick a tablet or phone based on the overall usability of the device and the comprehensive accessibility options offered and not to what degree their accompanying digital assistant is chatty in its responses. Would it be too much to ask to have "OK Google" running on an iPad?

Personal Assistants Are Improving for the Visually Impaired

Ultimately, what the smackdowns demonstrated is that the virtual assistants are getting better and better in their ability to respond to voice commands and that increasingly they are making it easier and more convenient to interact with smart devices. In addition, for users with visual impairments, interaction with these devices has certainly become more accessible and will continue to grow easier and more robust in time. It is difficult to overestimate how these digital assistants and their responsiveness to voice commands are changing the overall ease of accessibility to information and computing for consumers with visual impairment.

Rumor has it that Amazon will be updating the operating system on it’s Kindle Fire HD tablets to include Alexa! Be on the lookout for new updates to digital personal assistant technology.

Additional Links

Google Now "OK Google" Digital Assistant

Amazon Echo vs Amazon Tap vs Echo Dot: What's the Difference?

For a list of commands to use with "OK Google" check out "Everything you can do with Google Now voice commands"

For a comparable list of commands to use with Siri, take a look at the "iOS Siri and Dictation Command List" on the AppleVis website.

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