The problem with voice-enabled "intelligent" apps is that there are way too many that are just OK Siri wannabes. Some are limited in features, intelligence levels vary widely, and there's always one or two that have been hastily knocked together by opportunistic developers. Maluuba is a new virtual intelligence app that claims to be more than just a personal assistant — and it has big plans to prove it's better than Siri.
According to the official app page, Maluuba helps you search for local businesses, organise your calendar and collaborate with friends over things like concerts and movies. It clearly outlines 18 supported categories — including weather, restaurants, music and reminders — and pulls data from third-party services such as Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Eventful, Foursquare, Google Calendar and YouTube. It's been variously described so far as the most "viable Siri competitor on Android" and "more powerful then Siri and Google Now put together".
There are a few things that set Maluuba apart from the likes of Siri, Google Now and S Voice. Firstly, it's a third-party app with no direct ties to the hardware business and therefore not exclusive to any one phone, company or platform. In that respect, Maluuba is more like other third-party apps with one important difference — Samsung invested $2 million into the project earlier this year.
Secondly, Maluuba has plans to be widely available across devices, platforms and countries. Maluuba says "our eventual goal is to allow anyone, in any country and any language, to get exactly what they want by speaking naturally to their devices, and we will get there eventually!" Right now, it's only available as an Android app in North America, but the company is developing iOS and Windows Phone apps. And Maluuba is reportedly looking to have the app pre-installed on phones and smart TVs too.
Since Maluuba and Google Now are currently Android exclusives, we tested one against the other in these screenshots so you can get an idea of Maluuba's capabilities.
Maluuba made it clear in a Q&A session on Reddit recently that Maluuba isn't competing with Google Now. It's going after what the industry considers to be the "gold standard" in voice-enabled, intelligent personal assistance software: Siri in iOS 6. Maluuba claims to have matched Siri's "natural language accuracy" in just 6-8 months — something that took Siri five years to achieve. "If you extrapolate this rate of development into the future, it's easy to see where we'll be relative to Siri in a couple of years," Maluuba said.
As for Google Now, this is what the developer has to say:
Google Now is much newer to this game, and it shows — they only support two or three categories, and they don't even do it well. Our own internal tests indicate that we clobber them on accuracy, and with much wider breadth. Not to mention, it's unlikely that Google Now will ever be backported beyond Android 4.1. Given the current breakdown of the install base, it'll be a very long time before we're even competing for the same users.
I tested Maluuba for a week to see how it compared with a modded version of Google Now that I have on my Motorola RAZR. Google Now gives me some grief, which is expected since I'm running an older version that has been hacked to run on an unsupported device. It's slow to start, crashtastic and buggy. But I love it anyway. When it works, it works really well.
Maluuba doesn't make me feel the same way — at least not in its current form. Maluuba misinterprets my voice commands noticeably more, while Google Now is better at recognising my Australian accent and only really stumbles on people's names. Maluuba might theoretically support more categories, but I think it could serve users better by focusing on doing a few things well rather than trying to be everything Siri and Google Now and the rest of them are not. For instance, I personally wouldn't use the 'Connect' features. There's something unnerving about posting status updates from apps that haven't been explicitly designed for that purpose. Maluuba also lacks Google Now's voice replies — having Google Now speak the answers rather than simply loading the results on screen is a novelty I admittedly like a little bit too much.
Google Now's minimalist user interface is much more appealing as well. Maluuba went with a "less is more" approach and somehow ended up with the Windows Phone's Metro interface. It's user friendly and pleasantly familiar, but it's totally out of place on Android. Maluuba has mentioned the possibility of themes later on, which we'll take over its current "one (Windows Phone) design fits all" look and feel.
When we asked Maluuba about an Australian release, the developers confirmed that they are currently testing the app with local data sources and Australian accents. No ETA was given. If you don't want to wait for the official version, you can try a North American version of the app right now — albeit with limited functionality:
Movies, Events, Businesses and Restaurants will be limited outside NA. Also the language should be set to English (Australia) for accents.
Since the app relies on widely available third-party sources, most commands worked without a problem when we tried it out. For instance, you can look up the weather, play music, search the web, set reminders and alarms, call contacts, get directions, use calendar-related features, and search for restaurants and local businesses. The things that we found to not work properly in Australia include movies, directions, the nightlife section in events, data related to navigation or location, among bits and pieces.
If you want to sideload the APK, remember that it's completely unsupported and unofficial outside of North America. You alone are responsible if something goes wrong. (Proceed at your own risk.)
Maluuba isn't a finished product yet, but it has the potential to be just as slick and intuitive as its competitors. And it's great that the company is being open and transparent about its goals and plans. It just perhaps needs to decide between being excellent at a few things or just being an OK all-rounder of a personal assistant app. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Top image: Maluuba on Google Play