Apple's push-to-talk Siri vs. Google's always-listening Now: Which is better?

Apple's push-to-talk Siri vs. Google's always-listening: Which is better?

With iOS 7.1 Apple's added a new feature to Siri, their personal digital assistant — the ability to manually control how long Siri listens. The concept is remarkably similar to the old push-to-talk systems, just hold down the Home button, start talking, and then let go of the Home button and Siri goes to work. It's also remarkably different than the Moto X and Google's "always listening". But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Apple and Google have totally different businesses and that makes for totally different priorities. Apple makes money on hardware margins so they want to sell more and more profitable iPhones. Google makes money off advertising revenue so they want to hold more of your attention and acquire more of your data. That means it's in Google's best interest to discount hardware and lower prices to get products into more hands so the eyes attached to those hands can be enticed into looking at even more Google services. It also means it's in Apple's best interests to differentiate their hardware so the value clearly exceeds the cost. One of the ways to differentiate is privacy.

With the Moto X, whether it's in your hand or across the room, you can simply say "Okay, Google Now", tell it what you want, and it'll do it. No button press or physical contact required. To do this, however, the Moto X has to be listening to every word you say so it'll know when you say "Okay, Google Now". (It even has natural language and contextual coprocessors to make doing so more energy efficient.) For some of us the convenience far, far outweighs the privacy concerns since we like Google and love gadgets and, hey, it feels like something out of Star Trek.

With the iPhone and the new Siri option you absolutely have to press and hold down a big, clicky, physical button and hold it down for as long as you're talking. Say "Okay, Siri" and you know what you get? Nothing. You get nothing and more nothing unless and until you're hold down the button. Don't hold it down and Siri won't be listening. For some of us the loss of convenience is more than made up for by increase in control. Siri isn't always listening but we're damn sure it isn't listening when we don't want it to.

Apple extends this even to their new CarPlay feature, which extends iOS apps to automotive infotainment systems. If they work with Siri a button on the steering wheel needs to be pushed to activate it.

If your hands are busy or full or messy, always-listening can seem like a life saver. If you're in the middle of confidential, personal, or sensitive moment, push-to-talk can seem like a blessing.

The best of both worlds might be the ability to tell Siri to enter an always-listening hands-free mode. It could persist for a short period of time or until you tell Siri to stop listening. That way you have the privacy and security of push-to-talk most of the time, but the convenience of always-listening when you're driving, cooking, or otherwise have your hands and attention elsewhere.

It would have the advantage of Apple's business model not being dependent on aggregating our personal data, at least so far, but it wouldn't have all the depth and breadth of Google's services. Some might find that reassuring, others frustrating.

Likewise the on-board voice parsing — no need to go to the network to set alarms or perform other local tasks — and the whole "prescience" thing — preemptively serving up what it feels is relevant information. Google Now has done both for a while now. Siri, however, still goes to the network for everything and still only speaks when spoken to...

Push-to-talk or always-listening, what's your preference, when, and why?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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