Voice and Integrated Computing: What Now?

October 24th, 2011

A few months ago, I was at the Engadget Show listening to Steve Wozniak answer a question about where he thought computing was headed. His answer? Voice. At the time, I was sitting there thinking to myself “Nah, no way.”

Wow, was I wrong.

Photo: Pleated Jeans

Fast-forward to late last week. I had a fascinating conversation with Georgia Tech’s Keith McGreggor about what Siri is beginning to do to the way we interact with devices. My initial thoughts were (and to a small degree still are) that it’s unnatural to talk to a phone for the purpose of voice commands. Granted, the same thing is essentially happening when you’re talking on the phone or on Skype, but in that case, you know that an actual person is on the other end.

But in the case of Siri, is there a person on the other end? We’re starting to see the personification of computing; you’re not talking to the “Voice Activated Command Module”, you’re talking to Siri. When the release first came out, I was a little confused as to why Apple didn’t rebrand Siri to something more Apple-esque, like “Assistant” or “Navigator”. But then I thought about the personal touch that “Siri” gives. There’s even a few people named Siri. It’s human, it’s natural, and it works.

To take it a step further, it’s really mind-blowing to think about what happens if (but more likely when) this voice interaction becomes not only natural and comfortable, but integrated with everything we do. Keith mentioned the idea of building Siri into Apple TV and being able to walk into the living room, sit down, and say “Let’s watch some football.” (I wouldn’t say that myself, but you get the point).

Even cooler would be to see this tie into an Internet of Things – walk into your kitchen, say “Huh, I’m feeling like some toast”, and have two slices of bread drop from the celling into a just-activated toaster. Slight joke, but the idea stands. When Siri opens up and becomes a platform, a medium for other devices, that’s where it gets big.

And we’re only at the beginning of the beginning.

Google Plus

July 9th, 2011

The idea of Google releasing a social network to compete with Facebook has been floating around for a while, but they hit us by surprise with the soft launch of Google Plus. This was also used to facilitate a redesign of other Google products – namely Gmail, Google Search, and the service-wide top bar.

Let’s circle back around later

When first setting up your account, you’re encouraged to set up “circles”: groups of people that you can use to control who sees what. A really cool UI powers the dragging and dropping of people into different circles…it feels familiar, but I can’t quite place it. You can add people to your circles and they can add you to their circles, but the person on the receiving end can’t see which circle they’ve been added to. It took me a while to fully grasp the level of mutualism; in this sense, it’s a lot more like Twitter than Facebook. It’s not zero sum – adding someone to a circle doesn’t require them to do the same with you.

Once circles are set up, entering profile information is pretty straightforward. Integration with your existing Google Profile is nice, and from here on out it’s essentially what would be expected of a standard social network.

Similarity to Facebook

It’s tough to describe functionality without using the word “Facebook”. The core of the app, especially the news feed, is very reminiscent of Facebook, but there are a few differences. With Facebook, segmentation of your friends is a hard-to-find afterthought, but in Plus, it’s one of the first things you do. Collaborative video chats (“Hangouts”) are something that Zuckerberg has yet to fully implement, but that’ll be changing soon, likely as a response to Plus. The user interface, although a little cleaned up, mimics Facebook in many ways, from the layout of a sidebar on the left to the indented format of comments. It almost reminds me of the Microsoft Store to Apple Store comparison.

A lot of things are awesome

Based on search queries and the potential for data collection with +1′ing, Google can have a much better idea of who someone is than Facebook does, and it’d be really cool to see some integration of that into how you’re connected to people. The fact that the Google header follows you around in Gmail, search, maps, etc. is also helpful.

But why could this be better?

Google does have a few advantages in terms of a userbase and ties with existing products, and is definitely better positioned to have a social network. But the timing’s way off. They’re putting up a brand-new silo right next to Facebook, and I’m not sure the segmentation will be a good thing. Photos are especially an issue – the inconvenience could be huge to have some photos on Facebook, some photos on Flickr, and now some photos on Plus.

And although it’s a small problem that’ll likely be taken care of in the future, there’s a significant delay between when you get a notification in Plus and when the email is sent. Not a huge deal, but it does throw you off when getting an email that’s notifying you of something that happened a few hours ago.

The bottom line

It’s a cool webapp. But when it comes down to the sandpaper, they’re not solving a real problem or filling a real need – they’re just trying to keep up with everyone else.

Behind Closed Windows

June 5th, 2011

Windows 8 Start Menu

At AllThingsD’s D9 last week, Microsoft showed off a preview of Windows 8. Wow. It’s obviously a radical departure from previous versions of Windows, and is somewhat similar to what Mac OS X was to Mac OS 9. The UI is moving towards Windows Phone’s Metro UI, although the revealed screenshots of the new Start menu look more like a different implementation of Windows Media Center than an actual operating system. On the whole, I like where Microsoft’s heading. I’ve always been a fan of Metro, and even though it gives off a little bit of a bare, unfinished look, the emotional response of cleanliness is good.

I’m slightly concerned that this might be too big of a change, though.

I don’t want it to be. I really don’t.

But it all comes down to the ability for developers to adapt. And if such a heavy emphasis is being placed on touch, hardware has to be both ready to support Windows 8 and widespread enough to make it worth the investment. That brings us to the classic Apple argument – it may be a bit stale by now, but it’s true: they control their own hardware. If they want to migrate OS X over to a touch interface, it’s much easier than Microsoft having to wait around on manufacturers to catch up. Yes, there’s a legacy mode to run apps Windows 7-style, but the end goal shouldn’t have to be dependably held up by backwards compatibility that’s used more than the new features. However, I suppose the argument could be made that by working closely with OEMs, revealing early (as they did), and forcibly delivering by a certain date, the OEMs will be forced to keep up.

I certainly hope that’s the case.