November 18, 2008

Google voice search for iPhone: Cool, but only so-so useful

Finally got my hands on the much-anticipated update for the Google iPhone app, which now adds voice searching to the mix. My reaction? Mixed feelings.

Yes, it's simple enough: Just speak into the phone (either hold it up to your ear, or press a virtual button and talk) and within a few seconds, you'll get a list of nicely formatted Google results. Say, "Barack Obama," and you'll get search results for our next president. Or say "News about Donovan McNabb," and you'll see headlines about how the 10-year pro football veteran didn't know there were ties in the NFL (ugh). And if you have location services enabled, just say "Mexican restaurant" to find the nearest taco (although, sadly, you get the results on a Web page rather than on the iPhone's map application). [Update: You actually can get search results to pop up on Google Maps for iPhone, as long as you first set the Google app to work with the Map app; that said, I wish iPhone Map hits were better integrated with the standard Google app search results.]

Sounds cool, but in practice, Google voice search is a mixed bag. Voice recognition was hit-and-miss; no matter how many times I tried to call up "pictures of yoda," I got yoga images instead. "Movie showtimes" worked well, but when I said "nearby restaurants," I got the Web site for a theater troupe in Virginia that happened to have a "nearby restaurants" page. I tried calling my wife by saying "call Susan," but instead of getting her phone number, I got a search listing for Susan Brown, Nashville's top relocation specialist. (I know, no one ever said the new Google app would do voice commands—but isn't that a reasonable expectation, given how many other phones do the same thing?)

Overall—yeah, the technology here is pretty cool, but I'm not sure how much I'll be using the new Google search app in real life. When I want to find a nearby restaurant, I want my results on a map, not on a Google Web page. If I want movie showtimes, I'll use the Flixter for iPhone. In short? Nice, but not a life-changer.

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