By Harry McCracken | Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 5:53 pm
A couple of thousand folks–many of who were clearly hardcore Android enthusiasts–hung out with me this morning as I liveblogged Google’s mobile event. Before the event got underway, some of them shared their hopes about what it would cover: Android Market improvements, new handsets, integrated FaceTime-style videochat, and more.
Google didn’t announce any of that stuff. But it did roll out two new app/services, one of which it first previewed back at its Google I|O conference in May.
The brand new item is an addition to Android’s voice-recognition features called Voice Actions. The OS already lets you talk to perform Google searches and dictate text into any app that accepts keyboard app–and now you can speak commands to send texts, pull up maps, make phone calls, send yourself notes in the form of e-mails addressed to yourself, and more.
“Send text to Mike Morrisey I’ll be there in ten minutes”
“Note to self: pick up chicken wings”
“Go to YouTube”
“Navigate to Daphne’s Greek Cafe”
“Listen to Frank Sinatra”
As with Android’s other voice features, the recognition is done on powerful remote servers, not on your handset. It works pretty well when there’s not a lot of background noise. (Other people talking around you hurts the accuracy, which is an issue: When Google explained where the feature would be most useful, it mentioned bustling venues such as airports and train stations.)
There are a total of thirteen Voice Actions (including Google search). They can be surprisingly smart–when I mentioned local businesses, for instance, the phone knew about them. But in other instances Voice Actions are kind of rudimentary. For instance, the music command only works with third-party apps like Pandora and Rdio, not with Android’s built-in music player.
“Go to [Web site]” seems to work off a canned list of major sites. I can deal with the fact that it doesn’t understand “Go to Technologizer”–it takes you to a Google search for “Technologizer,” not to the site. But I don’t understand why the Voice Action isn’t smart enough to understand “Go to Technologizer.com.” (That too performs a Google search.)
Voice Actions are fun, and they’re a logical extension of Android’a existing voice features. But they’re most interesting as a possible salvo in a new front in the Android-iPhone wars. At the moment, iPhones only have voice recognition courtesy of third-party apps such as Dragon Dictation and Siri. [CLARIFICATION: I meant with recognition of all kinds of words in all kinds of situations–beyond the basic voice commands built into the OS.] Considering that Apple now owns Siri, though, you’ve got to think that the chances are very high that iPhones will get built-in voice, too–maybe in the iOS 5 upgrade. I’d love to see the voice competition get intense.
As for Google’s other news this morning–well, a lot of the Android fans who attended my live coverage already seemed to be well aware of Chrome to Phone. A side project by Google engineer Dave Burke, it uses a Chrome extension and an Android app to let you instantly shuttle information from your browser to your phone.
The extension puts a phone icon in your copy of Chrome. Click it when you’re on a garden-variety Web site, and that site will instantly open on your phone. Click it when you’re in Google Maps in Chrome, and it sends the address to Google Maps on the phone. Click it when you’ve highlighted a phone number, and your phone will dial the number.
For now, Chrome to Phone only works with Chrome and Android phones. But it’s open source, so other folks can build their own versions–there’s already a Firefox to Phone extension. And when someone asked at this morning’s event, the Google reps said that the company might build an iPhone version.
Another audience member asked a question I was curious about: Is there any way to send something from Chrome to phone for future reference rather than immediate use (a la Instapaper)? Nope, not now–but the Googlers said that they’d like to implement a history feature at some point.
Both Voice Actions and Chrome to Phone are available for download as of today, but require Android 2.2 Froyo, which means that they’re not compatible with most of the Android handsets on the planet just yet. (Hey, I thought that anyone who thought Android was fragmenting was hallucinating.) They come preinstalled on Verizon’s Droid 2, which goes on sale today, work on other 2.2 phones, and will be ready for various handsets that are supposed to get 2.2 real soon now (such as my original Droid).
Oh, and Voice Actions, at least, is apparently incompatible with at least some Android phones which are running nonstandard ROMs. The commenters following my live coverage discovered that while the event was still in progress. Like I said, they were a really serious bunch of Android enthusiasts…