S-Voice, one of the most hyped features on the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S3 Android phone and touted as a rival to the Siri voice command service on the iPhone 4S, leaked out online over the weekend for all Ice Cream Sandwich devices.
Keen hackers – including yours truly – have been trying it out and seeing what works. Although it’s early software, it’s nothing particularly groundbreaking – but it does confirm my suspicions: if Samsung wants this to be a Siri rival, it’s going to have to put it on more phones than the Galaxy S3.
Christmas came early for Android tinkerers on Saturday when the full ROM for the Samsung Galaxy S3 leaked out online. Within hours, the install file for S-Voice had been pulled: you can now install it on any Android 4.0 phone or tablet as you would any non-market app, though it works better on rooted phones when installed in the System folder with permissions tweaked (Instructions here, at your own risk, although access has been blocked for now).
I gave it a go: it reportedly worked seamlessly on powerful Android 4.0 phones such as the Galaxy Nexus and HTC One X, but it was too slow to be usable on a day to day basis on my 2010 Samsung Nexus S (This is brand new, early software running on a device it wasn’t intended for, after all). Still, I got a good sense of what it can and can’t do.
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For a start, anyone used to Vlingo will be completely non-plussed by S-Voice, seeing as Vlingo is actually powering the service. Apart from a pretty new skin, it really doesn’t let you do anything new. Yes, it lets you schedule various things or even say tweets, but you still have to launch it, and its natural language understanding compared to Siri on the iPhone is minimal. And of course there’s the same problem that Google’s own voice actions on Android suffer from: to launch them you still need to be holding the phone in the first place. And if you’ve already unlocked it, what the hell is the point of using your voice?
Now, Siri has some serious limitations: it can’t launch apps, it doesn’t work with third-party apps, and why the hell can’t it do directions outside America? But it’s got several features that make it the best example of voice control’s potential on mobile.
Firstly, natural language. If you don’t have to memorise commands, as you still essentially have to do with S-Voice, then you immediately remove a barrier to entry. That’s important when people don’t need to have the patience to learn something, when more convenient options are out there (Say, the iPhone).
Secondly, there’s input. While a lot of people have lost interest in it, the people I know who still use Siri most actually use it when their iPhone is locked. Apple’s master stroke with Siri was to make it accessible (if you permit it) through your headphones. It may not work flawlessly when you’re out for a run like in those adverts, but you can at least send emails with the minimum of fuss on the go.
As I’ve said before, Android needs a pair of headphones more than it needs an upgrade. And if Samsung wants people to use S-Voice, it needs them even more so. Given the sheer number of speech experts in its employ, it’s only a matter of time before Google strikes back with an Android-wide Siri rival (believed to be dubbed Majel) that far surpasses it. Only a company-wide strategy for S-Voice can keep it relevant.
So what does Samsung need? Well, for a start, S-Voice had damn well better be accessible from the bundled headphones that come in the Samsung Galaxy S3 box.
Why stop there though? Why not makes those earphones the new standard? Why not include S-Voice with every new Samsung phone? Make it what a customer expects, out of the box. Vlingo works on most Android phones, so there’s no reason it couldn’t.
Now I could be wrong of course: there’s every possibility S-Voice will be greatly improved on the Samsung Galaxy S3 when it hits the shelves. But from what I’ve seen so far? It’s not exactly going to be the feature that will have the critics raving.