Voice Assistants – A Simple Guide


Not everyone likes using voice commands with their phone or desktop. However, this is now a technology that is here to stay. The IPhone has Siri, Android has Google Now, and now Microsoft are bundling Cortana with their Windows 10 updates and also making this available on their Windows 8.1 phones.

There are still issues about when Cortana will become available for Malawi – but it can be tested and proves itself to be quite efficient. Office 2010 onwards, as I recall, provided settings for documents and data to be read out aloud to the user, and even included a dictating option for those who wished to dictate rather than type. The products now available are specifically aimed at smartphone users and have advanced to the stage where they can provide contextually aware responses to your enquiries. So what do these assistants do, and how useful will they be?

All three products offer the options of opening applications using a voice command. This is the easiest and simplest way to start using them. Calling someone in your address book for example can be done a simple button press and then using your voice. The product searches through your address book and finds the person. If it finds more than one person it reports back so that you can select the right person. It also offers the option of having your notifications or text messages read out to you – extremely useful if you are driving, or the phone is the same room but out of reach. Not so good if there is someone in the room who you do not want to share the message with! You can then respond to the message verbally by dictating and sending a response. There is no need to touch your phone at all.


So, being able to launch and respond to email, texts and telephone calls by voice becomes a normal option – and should hopefully reduce car accidents (caused by drivers texting at the same time) – more importantly, it should reduce social and business interruptions as users are able to respond or ignore these by a simple voice command.

Where is also proves itself useful is in the launch and manipulation of downloaded applications, and the ability to do things like switching your Wi-Fi on or off.

Other useful areas include the setting of reminders and alarms by simple verbal command. Example being, “Wake me up 20 minutes”, or “Set an alarm for 5.00am”.


The search options for all are very robust. They can all search the web for phrases, and can also identify music that is being played and identify the artist and song name. More contextual searches include searching for shops or restaurants close to where you are – extremely useful for travelers in a strange city looking for goods or services. You can check reviews relating to these places before deciding to use them. Looking up addresses or directions to navigate to an address also works extremely well. Nowadays, most good smartphones include a GPS navigation system. However, usage of the same in Malawi is limited as I have found when travelling to Lilongwe many times. This information is dependent on the provision of accurate maps of the country.

These applications are constantly training themselves to understand your voice. This is essential as everyone has a unique accent or voice print. Therefore, the more you use them the faster and more accurate they become.

Cortana is geared towards recording your normal actions online – for example, websearches and favourites and is able to make contextual recommendations based on this. At the end of the day, to be able to be truly useful, these apps require to have access to your personal life – your schedules, contacts and habits – and be able to adapt over time. The downside to this is the amount of personal information collected and stored by all three companies. The issue of privacy and confidentiality needs to be addressed to ensure users are not scared away by this.

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