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Voice actions on Android feel like a techy side feature, not a new way of interacting with computers. Assistant could and should be a much more cohesive package. If it does arrive on Tuesday, it will likely condense a boatload of technology into one simple thing: a computer interface you converse with. If done well, that could see Apple once again shift what it means to use a computer.

Apple doesn’t perform such tricks for free, and is notoriously controlling, though. Should Assistant appear, it will only be available on Apple devices, to drive sales. Any external services it connects with will be carefully approved. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Apple gets a cut of anything sold through Assistant, whether movie tickets or restaurant bookings. Still, like the iPhone and Apple’s other disruptive ideas, it won’t be long before competitors launch mimics.

Questions remain in my mind, though, about the limits Apple will have placed on Assistant to have it live up to the company’s own high standards. Creating a voice-based interface is easy, but creating one that, in Steve Jobs’s words, “just works” is not.

The fact is that voice recognition has to cheat to be really accurate without extensive pretraining to your voice. It needs some precognition of what you are going to say. Google’s voice search mobile app, for example, is incredibly accurate because it draws on piles of data about phrases people search for. Apple Assistant should be fine when taking orders related to things it knows you might talk about, like your calendar, contacts, or music playlists. Transcribing speech, such as an e-mail message, when you could say literally anything is another matter, though, and it will be interesting to see if Apple makes it part of its system. I’ve found Google’s voice actions to be infuriating to use for composing messages, and I can’t imagine Apple launching a product with such potential to annoy users.

Striking the balance between power and reliability could be the toughest design decision involved in building something like Assistant. It’s the type of judgement call that Steve Jobs excelled at, for example, when he put the iPad on hold and launched a smaller version in the form of a phone first. Come Tuesday, we may get a glimpse at how well Jobs’s successor negotiates the same trade-off between what could be launched and what meets Apple’s unique brand of experience-centric perfectionism.

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Credit: Apple

Tagged: Computing, Apple, iPhone, smart phone, iPhone 5, mobile platforms

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