From Siri’s introduction in 2011 to Alexa and Google Home today, virtual assistants have been one of the biggest technological developments of the decade. While there’s no doubt that they’re incredibly convenient, the amount of personal data they use is a concern for many.
In response to Google Now (now known as the Google feed), Apple introduced a feature called Proactive Siri in iOS 9. This has grown in recent updates, but how does Apple’s commitment to privacy mesh with this potentially privacy-invasive feature?
Google’s Approach to Predictive Assistance
To see what makes Apple’s approach to proactive assistance unique, we first need to examine what Google does.
Google launched Google Now in 2012. It was a feature built into the Google app for smartphones that provided predictive information based on your interests. Since 2015, Google has phased out the Google Now name, but the same functionality remains in the Google app. While it doesn’t have an official name, you’ll often see it called the “Google feed.”
This feature offers a lot of info. For example, if you have an upcoming flight, Google provides information about that without you having to look it up. Google also shares stories about your favorite sports teams, trending news, traffic to your frequent destinations, nearby attractions, and much more.
Of course, Google has to source this information from somewhere. It uses all of your interactions with Google’s various services to pinpoint what you’re interested in. Incoming packages, flights, and travel plans come from scanning your Gmail and Calendar data. And whenever you search on Google and YouTube, Google can use that to figure out what you’re interested in.
Thus, the more you use Google services, the more relevant the content Google shows in your feed will become.
Apple’s Approach to Predictive Assistance
Proactive Siri, introduced in 2015, is Apple’s answer to the Google feed. Unlike Google’s feed, though, it doesn’t collect these features in a single app. Instead, iOS has little touches all over the operating system that try to predict what you’ll use your phone for, thus saving you time.
For example, if you connect headphones to your device, you’ll see a prompt to open Music in the app switcher. Your phone assumes that because you just plugged in headphones, you’ll want to listen to something. If you receive a call from an unknown number, your phone will scan your email for that number and offer a suggestion of who it might be.
Many of these features come in the way of app suggestions. Pull down on your home screen to activate Spotlight, or swipe right to access the Widgets page on the far left of your home screen, and you’ll see Siri App Suggestions.
As you use your phone, it learns what apps you’re likely to open at certain times. So if you always open Audible and listen to a chapter of an audiobook before bed, you won’t have to go hunting for that app. Just slide over to the Widgets page and it should be waiting for you.
If you don’t see app widgets relevant to you, scroll down and tap the Edit button to customize them. You can remove any of the default ones you don’t use, and add many new ones below. Apple offers several standard options, but certain apps may add their own entries here as well.
You can see examples of Siri’s proactive work all over this page. News will show trending stories in your area, Reminders provides upcoming tasks to remember, and various Maps features can find you useful destinations near you.
The best way to make Proactive Siri better, like Google’s features, is to simply use your phone. As it learns your habits, it can offer more helpful predictions.
Proactive Siri vs. Google Feed: The Big Difference
The key difference with Apple’s proactive features is that everything happens and stays on your device. Unlike your Google account, the data for Proactive Siri is not linked with your Apple ID or harvested by Apple.
Apple doesn’t have the mountains of user data that Google keeps. And when the company announced this feature, executives made it clear that Apple doesn’t mine your data for this.
While the newest versions of iOS and macOS allow you to sync your Siri data across your devices via iCloud, this is done with end-to-end encryption. Thus Siri doesn’t have to relearn about you every time you get a new device, while keeping your data unreadable by Apple.
Is Proactive Siri Less Effective?
It would be a stretch to say that Apple’s Proactive features are wholly better than Google’s.
Google simply has more information to draw from, including your Gmail, search history, YouTube, Calendar, and more. Google also has a rich pool of information in Google Maps. This allows you to receive a larger volume of information in your Google feed.
However, Proactive Siri is still an excellent tool. Getting suggestions for apps you frequently use before you even look for them is neat, and Siri can do a lot with just the data on your device. While the Google feed gives you more raw information, Proactive Siri does as good a job or better of making your device smoother to use.
Apple’s Stance on User Privacy
Unlike most other tech companies, Apple has a firm commitment to privacy.
Google’s main source of income is advertising, so using the data you provide to build a profile around you and show you more relevant ads is a huge attraction. But Apple makes money from selling its products, and doesn’t have the incentive to collect so much information about you. If it did so, it would likely anger many users and damage the company’s reputation.
When introducing this feature, Apple said that “we honestly just don’t want to know” about your data. And Apple has proven itself in the FBI unlocking case, so it seems that the company truly isn’t interested in selling off data.
We recommend that you take a look at Apple’s Privacy page. It clearly details what Apple does to protect your privacy, the data it does collect, and what it does with that information.
For people who don’t want Google tracking their every move, Proactive Siri provides a great compromise between not having any virtual assistance, and giving too much personal information up to use one. It might not do as much as the Google feed, but at least you know all the data is kept locally on your device and not synced with your other accounts.
The Best Predictive Assistant for Privacy
We’ve seen how Google and Apple’s approaches to proactive assistance vary. Google provides more information and draws from a larger pool of data, while Apple focuses on app and other suggestions while sticking to only information from your device.
Whichever you prefer, you really can’t go wrong. Both get better as you use your device, and you can disable either of them if you prefer. For further comparisons, check out how Siri stacks up against Google Assistant.