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Google Working On Siri Alternative ‘Majel’

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Google’s secret ‘Majel’ project could be a competitor to Apple’s Siri, according to a blog

Once the ooing and ahhing about the Siri intelligent virtual assistant subsided a bit when the application appeared on Apple’s iPhone 4S in October, the tech press conjured questions concerning potential Siri competitors.

Now comes evidence from the blog Android and Me that Google’s answer to Siri is a natural language processing enhancement to its Voice Actions application that is code-named “Majel.” Majel refers to Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the actress who voiced of the Federation computer from Star Trek.

Natural language

“Where Voice Actions required you to issue specific commands like ‘send text to …’ or ‘navigate to …’ Majel will allow you to perform actions in your natural language similar to how Siri functions,” according to the Android and Me blog.

The software is reportedly being built in Google X, the super-secret (though not so clandestine, thanks to The New York Times) lab led by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Brin did say that one of the Google X projects could come to fruition this year. Could Majel be it?

This would make sense. Google, considered the market leader in voice-enabled search, must scramble to combat the deadly perception that Apple is eating its lunch in anything involving search.

Siri constitutes a major threat to Google, the current mobile search (and desktop) market leader. Mobile search ads are $1 billion (£640m) a year business for Google.

Google, it is widely held, is Siri’s best challenger. The company has offered Google Voice Search on the iPhone and its Android devices since 2008, and that application has been expanded to cover 29 languages, supporting accents in 37 countries, including the Middle East.

Google in August 2010 launched Voice Actions, which lets users speak commands into their smartphone to browse the web, send texts and make calls. Like Siri, Voice Actions lets users call businesses and contacts, send texts and email, listen to music, and browse the web by speaking into their phone.

However, while Voice Actions hews to preset voice controls, Siri goes beyond simple task completion by lending context to certain actions.

Ask it the weather and it will retrieve the info, using an iPhone 4S user’s current location. A user can also ask Siri if he or she needs an umbrella, and it will analyse local weather info to determine whether it’s going to rain. Voice Actions is like Siri, but “dumber”. Google, which prides itself on tackling Herculean challenges, including artificial intelligence tasks, would seem poised to answer Siri.

Count industry analyst Jack Gold as one of the believers in credible Siri alternatives. Gold told eWEEK:

“Natural language front ends to search engines have been on the agenda for several years. It’s just that they are not always easy to do, nor do users take to them easily as voice input has very many variables that make it work well or not so well based on particular circumstances.

“And phone front ends were not always adequate to the task for audio quality necessary to make it a good experience. Siri broke new ground and therefore there is now new momentum. But I would not assume that Apple has technology in Siri that can’t be (or hasn’t already been) duplicated or even exceeded.”

Gold expects Siri-like answers from not only Google but Microsoft Bing, which is already dabbling in this with its automotive applications for Ford’s Sync navigation software. And, of course, don’t count out Nuance Communications, which enables natural language processing for Siri and has significant capabilities.

“But at the end of the day, users will only use the technology if it works well and meets their needs, once they get over the ‘cool’ factor,” Gold added. “We’ll have to see how this plays out longer term. I don’t expect keyboards to be eliminated from search anytime soon.”

Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil sees Siri as more transformative than other analysts. Gottheil believes it will spur other vendors to rush more Siri-like interfaces to PCs, websites, and other devices like cars and TVs.

Still, he acknowledged as fair criticism that Siri is limited in scope and language – only three English dialects plus French and German – not to mention the bugs the befall every challenging new technology.

“Apple will, of course, improve it, but more important, users will learn how to use it, and when to use other user interface tools,” Gottheil wrote in a research note on 16 December. “Apple’s efforts, including the product itself, its humourous responses, and aggressive marketing, have encouraged users to try it. We believe Apple has pushed the interface past the tipping point, where users will keep using it and refine their skills, while Apple improves and expands it. “