The premise upon which I launched this site in 2011 is that unlike the common belief at the time that we were in the Post-PC era, I believe that we really are at the beginning of the true personal computing era. Prior to 2011 personal computing meant a computer used by one person as opposed to earlier computers used by many people at the same time. I believe that the advent of smartphones and tablets began to change the definition of personal computing towards something more natural and highly personalized to each of us as individuals.
The example I use is the Star Trek computer. If you aren’t familiar with it, Star Trek began as a science fiction television show in the late ’60s that continued to run in syndication throughout the ’70s, and re-appeared in movies and on TV throughout the ’80s. The computer was integrated with the starship Enterprise, in fact in some ways it was the voice of the Enterprise. While onboard the ship, people interacted with the computer by saying, “computer” and then asking it a question or giving it a command. Off board the ship, people initiated conversation with the computer by pressing the button on their communicator.
Two key aspects of the Star Trek computer stand out. One is that it was always listening on the ship, ready to provide information or complete a task when asked. Second, people interacted with the computer in the same manner, with their voice in natural language, as they do with any other person. These two features define for me what I think of as real personal computing.
During the five years that have passed, several developments have occurred that have brought us closer to the Star Trek vision, chief of which is now called voice assistance. It began back in 2010 with a company called Siri Inc. that created an app that you used by tapping an icon and then speaking a set of commands. Originally, Siri was to be made available for iOS, Android, and Blackberry, but it was acquired by Apple, which integrated it with iOS and introduced it as a unique feature with the launch of the iPhone 4S in 2011.
Google responded to Apple’s Siri when it added Google Now to Android 4.1 in 2012. Google Now also responds to voice commands, but it also monitors your email and calendar (if you use Google’s email, calendar and allow Google Now with access) and produces notifications and “Now Cards” for things like upcoming appointments and trips. For example, if you enter an appointment for 2 PM on your calendar and enter a location of the appointment, Google Now will notify you that it is time to leave for the appointment so that you can arrive on time.
Initially, neither Apple nor Google really billed Siri and Now as voice assistants but rather as add-ons to their products. Siri was an iPhone feature and not available on the iPad and Google Now was an enhancement to Google search. It wasn’t until Amazon revealed the Echo Dot and Alexa in 2014 that voice assistance began to emerge as a product on its own rather than an add-on.