Technology has made it possible to design some incredibly powerful devices that are smaller, thinner and lighter than ever. In fact, for a while there, cellphone manufactures were competing to see who could make the tiniest phone.
That trend has been reversed as smartphone makers realized that there is now a demand for larger screens. It turns out that a lot of people are willing to carry around a bigger phone to get that extra screen real estate that not only translates into a better visual experience, but also a better user interface -- because on most smartphones, the screen is also the keyboard and the bigger the keyboard, the easier it is to type.
But thanks to advances in voice recognition, keyboards could soon become passé. Apple has certainly been promoting that with its Siri voice recognition system that allows iPhone users to play music, conduct searches and navigate with their voice.
Google also recognizes the value of voice recognition and has been working to integrate it deeply into both its Android phone and tablet operating system and its Chrome browser. If you run the Chrome browser on a PC, Mac or Chromebook, you may notice a microphone within Google's search box. And if you have a microphone connected to your machine (most laptops have them built in) you can conduct a search by talking instead of typing.
I rarely do that from my PC or Mac because those machines have full-sized physical keyboards and, personally, I would rather type than talk. But when I'm using a smartphone, it's a different story. Despite years of using iPhones and Android phones, I'm still not bullish when it comes to typing on a small glass screen. I wasn't all that good typing on the tiny keyboard of my BlackBerry, either, back when that was my smartphone of choice.
Anyone who's used Siri probably has stories to tell about its misinterpretations. I've frequently tried using her to make a call only to have her call the wrong person (I call Siri "her" because she used to only have a female voice). Sometimes when I ask for driving directions, she takes me to the wrong location or does something entirely different, like searching the Web or playing a song.
The problem is both a less-than-perfect voice recognition system and connectivity. Siri depends on Internet servers to interpret your voice, and if the connection is weak or the servers are down or overloaded, it might not work at all.
For the past several days I've been testing out Google's new Nexus 5, which is the first phone to feature the Kit Kat version of Google's Android operating system, and I have to say I'm impressed with the phone and the operating system's voice recognition. I've used it in both Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., and found that it actually works most of the time.
Unlike the iPhone, an Android phone with Kit Kat is always listening for your verbal command. From any home screen say "OK Google" and a red microphone pops up with the instructions "speak now." At that point you can ask it to dial a number, launch an app, search the Web or navigate to a location on the map.
Unlike the iPhone and previous versions of the Android operating system, you don't have to even touch your phone to use it. But the biggest difference between Kit Kat's voice recognition and Siri is that Google's works most of the time. Siri tends to be a bit sporadic, but the voice recognition on the Nexus 5 phone that I'm testing is quite reliable.
There were a few times when it misinterpreted what I said, but they were rare. It even worked when the phone was mounted on the dash of my car and from a noisy conference center or street corner. I've used it to conduct Web searches, to navigate to various parts of the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., and to make phone calls by speaking the person's name. I've also used it to call companies that aren't in my address book. It can often find the number and dial it
It's hard to overstate the value of a good and reliable voice recognition system. Since I got the phone I've hardly used the dialer. And if I have a question, I don't bother typing in the search engine. I just say something like "What is the population of Argentina?" and it displays the answer (41.09 million). If you want information on a public person, including not-so-famous journalists like myself, you can just say, "Who is Larry Magid?" and it will read aloud the first sentence or two of my biography from Wikipedia.
Like Siri, Google also launches apps. But while Siri works mainly with apps from Apple, Google's voice system seems to work with just about any Android app.
One thing I will say for Siri is she it has a better sense of humor. Ask her "What is the meaning of life?" and she'll give you an earful. Google's voice recognition technology may be more reliable, but Siri has a much more interesting personality.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.