The new voice–activated personal assistants look a very interesting technology. I’d love to play with it. The problem is that, as things stand, you have to make an almost feudal commitment to a corporate to be able to do so.

image: terres rouge

So far as I can tell, the technology requires rather powerful processing, something beyond the power of typical home computers, whether mobile, tablet, console, laptop, or even PC. This requires the vendor of the device to provide access to that computing power. Since it’s only needed by a customer when they use the assistant (to work out what was said, what was meant, what to do about it, then doing it and replying), the vendor can use a very powerful server to give a quick reply, and have that server deal with queries from other customers elsewhen.

The products answer questions. Whether the answers are honest or biased to the corporations is uncontestable; bias is unavoidable, no matter how hard people may try to avoid it. Mind you, I can’t think of any reason why a corporation would avoid bias in their favour, so long as it doesn’t engender distrust. I do think the corporations will avoid going too far, to avoid making people so distrust their products they stop buying them.

So, clearly, to try these things out, I need to tug my forelock in the general direction of a corporate provider. I know of four big alternatives. There may be others, but for now I’ll only look at these four. Which one should I select?

Well, first of all, let’s discuss my requirements. The first is obvious: the product should actually work. For this, I’ll partially depend on reviews; not those on sellers’ sites, but those of online magazines. These can only be trusted so far, but they should at least say whether pressing the on button results in something happening.

I need the product to understand and respond in mothertongue English & Mandarin, with French as a second language, and preferably English, Mandarin, Flemish, German and Luxembourgish as other second languages. I’d be very surprised indeed if that last language is available, but most of the others should be there (although Flemish might be Dutch, which is acceptable).

I want to retain some control over corporate abuse of my personal information, even if that control is pretty well imaginary. Unfortunately, I tend to fall quite easily for cons—one of the reasons I left the UK is that there such cons are socially acceptable, legal and commonplace (to illustrate, UK cowboys extended beyond real life Del Boys to effective monopolies like PC World, a company I’ve found to be a master of malevolent incompetence). I’ve learnt, over the years, some means to defend myself, and my best defence is to ensure the person attempting the con does not have a hook into my psyché. If they have no information about me, they are far less likely to find such a hook. That’s why I do not want to give my personal information to corporates who make money selling that information to prospective conmen. This is important to me.

Who are these corporates that have, or intend to produce, these products? I know of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Let’s look at those four.

image: terres rouge

Amazon created the market, and are the early leaders. I do business with them, as a pretty typical customer. I always control that business, or at least that’s how it feels, and I have never had a bad experience with them. All problems have been resolved to my satisfaction. My difficulty is the business they’re in. They want to sell me things. I believe that if they get more information about me, they’ll use it to try and sell me more things. I’ve seen this with their advertising; they promote stuff to me that’s related to things I’ve recently bought. I sometimes fall for such trickery. I strongly believe that if I use their personal assistant, they’ll use it to find out more things about me, and so promote more stuff to me. It’s what expected of a business, it’s almost natural, but unfortunately, to me, it’s also unacceptable. Advertising uses psychological tricks to create sales, in the worst cases it tricks people. So, although their product has the best reputation, and I’ve yet to have a problem with them, they’re simply in the wrong place for me. I’ll avoid them.

Apple are not yet in the market, but have signalled their intention to be there. I am confident that, when it arrives, their product will be very good and very expensive. I have use many Apple products, and they are marked by superb quality hardware and ok software. I am, for example, typing this on an elderly iMac, which, despite eight years of continuous use, runs the latest macos. They already have information about me, and they are not in the business of stealing personal information and supplying it to conmen, or so I believe. Having said that, I do not have an Apple phone because essential (to me) parts of iOS are unusable. So Apple are acceptable to me, so long as the product works. I expect it’ll work in the early days, like iOS, and be screwed up into unusability later on, like iOS.

Google is an unavoidable corporate. They make by far the best search engine on the web, in my opinion. I use alternatives when I can, but I revert to them for more complex searches, because, unlike their competition, the results usually have something in common with the search terms. They also make very good translation engines, nearly as good as the ones made by the European Commission. The problem is that they make their money by taking peoples’ personal information and selling it to conmen. Even though their product is on the market, and available, I won’t go near them.

There’s actually another two reasons why I won’t touch the Google product. First of all, they have the annoying habit of launching interesting products, and then cutting support and withdrawing them after a while. I don’t think this will happen with this category of product, Google are helping create a market that is clearly going to be very big, but there’s always a risk. This is also why, if I ever launch a commercial product myself, I’d never allow it to have any connection with a Google service; that service might be withdrawn at random.

image: terres rouge

Also, I once bought an HTC smartphone, running Android, a Google product. That smartphone cost me a lot of money. HTC abandoned it after 13 months or so, and their final update borked the phone. Whilst that is not directly Google’s fault, their name was associated with the product. It means that I’d only buy an Android phone from Google themselves, and I don’t want to buy anything from them because they make their humungous profits selling peoples’ personal information to conmen.

I also bought an HTC smartphone running Windows 7, and that still works (although updates have long since stopped). Unlike Google, Microsoft kept sufficient control over Windows on the phone to ensure the product kept working even if a manufacturer had problems. It’s one reason why I still use Windows Phone, and it’s interesting given Microsoft are the final name on my list.

Microsoft already have a great deal of information about me. I am not aware of them having abused it. I have subscribed to various versions of the Microsoft Developer Network since it was launched in the early 1990s. They were, in my professional prime, the Shakespeare of the industry: they got the bills paid. I have a lot of patience for them. They’re not so much in the business of selling my private information to conmen, so far as I know. They have a product available, although it’s pricey, and an early version. If they had a cheap, mass consumer product available, as Google does, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it, but that’s not likely to appear.

So I think I’d order the companies thus: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google. The last two, I will avoid unless I have no choice but to buy a product, and then I would prefer Amazon over Google because Amazon have yet to burn me.

However, I think the real answer is that I need to investigate the market some more. You may have noticed that the four big providers are all big cloud providers: it’s that powerful computing infrastructure that supplies the additional computer oomph necessary to make these personal assistants deliver. There are other cloud providers out there. There are companies happy to use third party cloud providers. Indeed, Microsoft are happily promoting their cloud, Azure, to do just that. So I would expect, and hope, that other suppliers exist, and will soon appear. Indeed, I am quite surprised there is no Chinese competitor yet: those guys are usually on the ball. I may simply have missed them.

Still, in the meantime, I can experiment. I have Apple and Microsoft computers, and they run versions of software similar to personal assistants. I will try them out.