It seems that Apple rivals are everywhere these days, and the world of personal assistant apps is no different. Since October of last year when the iPhone 4S was unveiled, Siri has become an incredibly popular feature, a household name, and a glimpse into the future of user-computer interfaces. Yet in January, Evi from True Knowledge entered the scene as Siri’s contender, bringing a personal assistant to Android smartphones and tallying up over a million downloads in the first half of 2012, even as Apple threatened to remove the copycat from iTunes.
Now for round two in the app battle, Evi has relaunched, been enhanced, and strengthened its team, right on the heels of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference where it became clear that Siri will be deeply embedded into the next iOS.
True Knowledge, based in the UK, is the 5-year-old search engine that processes natural language questions by accessing its database of over 600 million facts on millions of things. Four million users a month use the search engine, but clearly the potential in its smartphone personal assistant demanded a bigger splash. So True Knowledge recently rebranded itself as Evi.com and opened up offices in Silicon Valley. Additionally, the company brought entrepreneur Barak Berkowitz on board as CEO. Berkowitz is a former CEO of Six Apart, was most recently a managing director at Wolfram Alpha, and in the 80s had a number of roles in consumer marketing programs at Apple. These moves are in part to increase business partnerships that will provide Evi with even more capabilities.
Taking a cue from Siri, the company continues to build ways for Evi to access smartphone features, so now the app can initiate phone calls and send text messages, along with answering the sames kinds of factual questions that is one of its shining features.
Here’s the promotional video for Evi from earlier this year:
But classic science fiction films have set the bar high by showing humans conversing with computers, whether it was a panel with flashing lights or a friendly robot, and unfortunately, this is where Evi comes up short against Siri. Evi isn’t much of a conversationalist and often times kicks users out to a webpage for more information, which runs counter to a mobile platform.
Siri, on the other hand, is heavily marketing itself as more than just an app, but a helper and in some ways a companion. Check out the latest Apple ad for Siri featuring John Malkovich:
Siri is the first attempt to bring everyday conversation with computers into the mainstream through a common device. And Apple seems to have succeeded in making the service the poster child of its special mix of magic and technology. In fact, a recent survey found that 87 percent of iPhone 4S owners use at least one of Siri’s features on a monthly basis and nearly three-quarters said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with Siri’s performance. With the release of iOS 6 in the fall, Siri will become available on the new iPad and the service is getting beefed up with Facebook integration and being installed in various vehicles for hands free commands while driving.
Before it was acquired by Apple, Siri used to be based solely on Wolfram Alpha, the natural language answer engine once a competitor to True Knowledge. However, the app doesn’t currently link directly to Wolfram and is based on Apple’s own technology, something that Steve Wozniak has noted as a detriment.
But, even as Evi and Siri vie for mobile user loyalty, could it be possible that another contender is getting ready to enter the ring?
Consider that the biggest news in semantic search over the past few months comes from Google with its announcement of Knowledge Graph. Similar to True Knowledge’s engine, this search tool reflects a new “things not strings” philosophy that focuses on understanding facts about real objects, rather than just recognizing keywords in search. Only a few months ago, Google also introduced the world to Project Glass, which aims to bring about an augmented reality headset that could revolutionize the way people interact with computers. Now, with last year’s release of Google Voice Search, allowing you to speak search terms into a Chrome browser, all the pieces seem to be falling into place for Google to launch its own personal assistant…perhaps not as an independent app for smartphones, but as part of the new Chrome OS.
When it comes to carrying on a normal conversation with a computer, we are likely years away from seeing science fiction become science fact. But clearly the early steps toward that level of sophisticated artificial intelligence have already been taken. And that means companies will continue to put forth their best efforts at creating the best personal assistant that fits in your pocket.