Tag Archives: Siri

Episode 45 News: “Now” and Then

We’ve moved into the month of May, so fans of summer movies and Macs are buzzing. Six weeks ahead of Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference, the 9to5Mac site claims it has exclusive information about the next release of OS X. The upcoming iOS 7 software is said to be sporting a new look as well — possibly moving to the “flat” design currently favored by Google and Microsoft, where plain backgrounds are accented with bold color buttons devoid of 3D effects like rendered shadows and gradations.

While LG Electronics is moving from flat to curvy with what it calls the world’s first curved OLED screen, the whole “flat” seems to be working for Microsoft, on the mobile front, anyway. According to the firm Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, the Windows Phone OS grew from 3.7 percent of the US market share at the end of March 2012 up to 5.6 percent the first quarter of 2013. (Maybe those sassy TV ads for Windows Phone are also helping.) But Microsoft is doing more with voice-work than just pumping out handsets — the company now has the make-Skype-calls-directly-from-your-Outlook.com-inbox feature up and running, in the United Kingdom anyway, with more countries on the way.

Google Now, the Big G’s voice-assisted life helper program for mobile devices, arrived this week for iOS as part of an update to the Google Search app. Battery-burn accusations aside, Business Insider and other sites report that Google Now actually seems to be more useful than Apple’s own Siri assistant, while also noting the irony that Google Now doesn’t actually work on a lot of phones running older versions of Google’s own Android system.

graceA new study from North Carolina State University has found that older programmers know more than their younger counterparts about recent software platforms and that the skills and knowledge of the veteran coders improves over time. The full paper is titled “Is Programming Knowledge Related to Age?” (Code wranglers and others who work odd hours might want to know that McDonald’s may be expanding availability of its delicious breakfast meals.)

In security news, the Syrian Electronic Army, which claimed it was behind last week’s hack attack on the Twitter feed of the Associated Press, is also targeting other organizations like the Guardian, National Public Radio and Al Jazeera. The Twitter account of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA and notable controversial newsmaker himself, was also compromised.

Like the airline industry, the travel search-and-bookings business is getting a little smaller thanks to mergers and acquisitions. As announced last fall, Priceline.com bought the sprightly little Kayak service and last month, Expedia.com bought Trivago, a German hotel search site. As detailed in a story in the New York Times this week, some travel industry analysts don’t think the companies will tamper with the search-engine formula, but the British Office of Fair Trading is taking a closer look.

The Internet — and the Web in particular — have made travel, shopping, cat videos and plenty of other things in life much easier, and it’s time to wish it a happy birthday this week. On April 30, 1993, CERN made the announcement that the World Wide Web would be expanding from its scientific and research origins and become free to anyone out there in the public domain. The CERN site has a short history of the Web, along with a link to a 1993 copy of the first Web site.

And finally, while some people may not have predicted just how popular the World Wide Web would be 20 years later, others are actively campaigning for a pre-emptive international ban on…killer robots. Yes, there is  an official movement known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the group seeks to halt the production of weapons that can attack targets without human intervention. For those who want to know more, a 50-page report released last fall from Human Rights Watch outlines many of the ethical concerns over fully autonomous weapons and the danger to civilians. Here’s hoping the future turns out to be more like The Jetsons and less like The Terminator

Talk That Talk

Smartphones make it easy to get the news headlines, weather forecasts and updates from your friends on social media where ever you are, but what if you don’t have time to read? Over the past couple of years, apps that read for you have been popping up all over. Like Apple’s Siri personal assistant, which can talk back and bring you info, some of these apps respond to voice commands. Some, however, are literally just read-only.

Many apps use the text-to-speech function built into the phone. Granted, some of these are better than others and the technology has come a long way since the Mac’s text-to-speech robot voice. But as the need for decent accessibility programs has increased to help people with vision impairments use the technology, the speech has gotten better.

winstonSo what’s out there? The Winston app for iOS is one example. Once you install it on your phone and tell it what you want to hear, Winston delivers an audio briefing any time you want.

The app recites a few of the more recent status updates from your Facebook and Twitter feeds and also reads an RSS-style summary of new headlines in your favorite categories. This sort of thing can be useful when you’re busy doing other stuff, like trying to get out of bed, making coffee or cooking breakfast.

Winston, shown here, uses a male voice with a British accent. (You can pretend it’s Alfred, but the folks behind its Twitter account told me they were big fans of Carson and Bates from Downton Abbey.) But it does have a nice, classy sound to it as it reads Facebook updates about the idiot things your friends did last night. It’s free and you can stream it over AirPlay-connected devices.

An Android version of Winston is said to be under development. Until then, if you have an Android phone, the iHear app for Android can read Facebook and Twitter updates.

Now, it you want more of a dedicated talking-alarm clock for your phone, you have plenty to choose from in your app store.

There’s a $3 iOS app called Wake Smarter that responds to voice commands for things like reading your Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. It also has programmable alarm clock and sleep timer functions, plus relaxing photos for wallpaper.

On the Android side, there’s Wakeful, the Talking Alarm Clock, which updates you on weather, stocks and the latest headlines. BedBuzz has similar powers but that app says it does not use the built-in text-to-speech function and sounds more natural. The $3 WakeVoice app is another option that responds to your voice and can read RSS feeds out loud. Senti Wayk is yet another similar Android app under development.

Cars have been getting into the voiceover action the past few years as well. The Chevy Cruze with the special OnStar service (remember that commercial?) is one attempt at bringing social media to the driving experience. The Ford Sync software is also adding Facebook integration, in case you just can’t bear to miss what’s going there. But since Facebook seems to influence moods, do you really want to have that distraction while driving?

Yeah, perhaps it’s best to stick with your favorite road-mix playlist there, and leave the read-aloud updates for those more stationary moments at home in the kitchen.