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Andy Rubin: “Your Phone Shouldn’t Be An Assistant”



Dear Andy Rubin,

Was there really a need for you to join the ranks of people who didn’t take the iPhone seriously? Because your comments at AsiaD make it sound like you are about to side with folks like RIM’s CEO and Steve Ballmer by saying silly things about what people do and don’t want.

“I don’t believe that your phone should be an assistant. … Your phone is a tool for communicating. You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.”

“To some degree it is natural for you to talk to your phone,” Rubin said, but historically that has meant talking to another person. As for talking to your phone without actually trying to connect to another person, Rubin says he’s not so sure.

Really Andy? You’re not sure? Perhaps you need to sit down and watch a little-known show I like called Star Trek. That might give you some clue as to how people want to be able to speak to their computers, phones, and other mobile devices.

Let’s break this down. First, a phone is a tool for communicating, yes, but smartphones are tools for communicating in different, more complex ways than the rotary dialing ancestor you appear to be thinking about. You’re not always communicating with people, sometimes you’re having a digital conversation with a nameless server somewhere using only words or, occasionally, collections of letters that might someday qualify as words.

Andy Rubin by Joi Ito

Credit: Joi Ito (Flickr)

Second, why shouldn’t you be communicating with your phone, exactly? How does that break the rules? Why is this where you choose to draw a line? Is it only because Siri is for the iPhone 4S and not for Android? That’s not a valid reason. Dismiss your competition all you like, but don’t try and limit what “should” be done with devices because Apple outmaneuvered you.

Third, the whole point of Siri is to make communicating with others easier. Setting reminders, finding locations, sending text and tweets, all of that leads to an end game where you remember to talk to your mom, get to dinner with your sister on time, and easily tell your daughter off at college that you love her (or whatever). All things people do with their phones, except now they can do them with voice and not typing.

It’s a difference in input methods, not some sea change in how people fundamentally use phones.

Fourth, your assertion that people should only be communicating with people on the other side of the phone instead of letting your phone be an assistant sounds to me like what you’re saying is that people should just have assistants instead of using a phone for that purpose. Andy, I highly suggest you stay away from Occupy Wall Street protests, because the 99% are giving you the side-eye over that.

Not all of us can afford (or even want) a personal assistant at the other end of the line who can “remind me to call my dad when I leave work.”

Fifth, in the same interview you apparently said: “We’ll see how pervasive it gets.” We’ll see? Rubin, isn’t your job not to wait and see but to create, innovate, and make better devices that do things people want or need even if they don’t know they want or need them? Or are you going to leave that to Apple? Because we know how well the wait and see approach worked for Microsoft, Palm, and RIM. You’re not supposed to be that guy.

Last, I return to Star Trek. Because there’s no better illustration of why Google and Android need to take what Siri represents seriously. The way the characters interact with the ship’s computer, or any computer in that universe, is the way we all expected to be interacting with computers a long time ago. That it hasn’t happened yet is right up there with the frustration over a lack of flying car.

Now technology and coding has gotten us to the point where it’s approaching possible, and you’re sitting there telling me that my phone shouldn’t be able to do it. That I should be calling people, instead.

What, what, what are you doing, Andy Rubin?



  1. Ingwing

    10/20/2011 at 7:14 am

    Agreed :) But it seems inherent to mankind that people try to tell others what to do/like and what not to do/like. first a guy decided that people shouldn’t write on computers (use sausages instead, scnr ;) and then someone else decides we shouldn’t talk to phones. I’d like to have less obstacles when using devices, no matter if it’s keyboards or touchscreens, so talking, gesturing, writing, eventually thinking should do fine for transferring information to a device. The near or distant future will tell us… 

  2. Scotty Braun

    10/20/2011 at 7:28 am

    I think Andy Rubin is correct. Not only are people losing there personality through texts, and emails as it is. But talking to a robot is just going overboard. Its fun for the first 10 mins, then its just corny.  I bought the iPhone 4s, returned it a day later. Google voice commands on Android do 80% of the same things as Siri, but I don’t have to hear anything back.  

    • Anonymous

      10/20/2011 at 9:32 am

      In Star Trek, no dialogs with the computer. They tell the computer what to do and it does it. Feedback is limited. Also, people type like hyperactive speed freaks in the Star Trek world. 

      Chatting up your phone with purposely fuzzy statements to see what happens and issuing clear, direct commands are two different things. Andy gets it.

      • K. T. Bradford

        10/20/2011 at 9:56 am

        As a hard core Star Trek geek, I must say to you: wrong. Yes, there are plenty of times when people just give it commands, but also plenty of times when they ask the computer things that aren’t just simple commands and require it to have some knowledge of how to interpret the request correctly. Also, did you watch that clip with Data? the Enterprise computer was downright snarky with him.

        • Anonymous

          10/20/2011 at 12:08 pm

          No one chats up the computers in Star Trek, and they don’t say things like “Send my wife a text” or dither about the weather. No lazy fuzzy statements, or testing recognition limits on purpose. 

          The clip demonstrated very limited feedback. Actually the computer should have been able to tell the difference between a command and a casual or excited utterance, as they are both clearly definable. 

  3. BrianB13

    10/20/2011 at 8:35 am

    These aren’t phones.  These are mobile computers of which a phone is just one of many functions they perform.  Granted, they evolved from phones.  They are also a PDA (emphasis on the “A”), a gaming device, a GPS device, a social networking device, an e-mail device, a still camera, a video camera, a video player, a MP3 player and a web surfing device just to name a few.

    These devices, as do all computers, accept input and generate output in various forms.  Voice is one of those forms.  I see nothing wrong with that.  So I think the real issue here is whether or not there is a place for artificial intelligence in these devices.  I think there is.  Outside of geeks and fanboys, most people only utilize some functions on these devices and rarely all of them.  If you want to use it, then do it.  Its always nice to have choices.  IMHO, Siri is merely a time saver.                 

  4. Anonymous

    10/20/2011 at 9:24 am

    I think the idea of speaking natural commands sounds cool, but in practice is too dorkly to use unless you are alone or you’re THAT GUY (the d-bag that is bluetooth yelling at all times, the dude on speakerphone at the store, etc.). Speaking commands to the aether and getting results is fine in the car or something, but not as a everyday, anytime deal. It’s pretty gimmicky past the new and fresh stage.

    • K. T. Bradford

      10/20/2011 at 9:58 am

      Disagree. A year from now it will be common to see people talking at their phones and they won’t all be “dorks”. Of course, it will generate many jokes, just like Bluetooth guy does. Here in NYC it will add a new dimension to “Is that person crazy or just talking to Siri?”

  5. Anonymous

    10/20/2011 at 9:40 am

    Due to his obvious bias, Rubin probably is the best person to be making this point, but I’m not sure I really disagree with him.  Siri seems like a fun feature, but I have serious doubts about how useful that kind of voice interaction really is.  While I can certainly see the use of voice commands while driving (although, ironically, the iPhone still lacks navigation features), but in most other settings I have a hard time figuring out why voice commands would be preferable to using the touchscreen and/or keyboard on a phone to execute the same commands.  For one thing, unless you are completely alone, voice introduces serious issues with both privacy and courtesy.

    I think the comparison between voice-controlled computers and flying cars is actually an apt one, but not in the way the author intended.  Both are mainstays of science fiction (particularly older stories) that have technically been possible for a while, but are probably pretty impractical in the real world.  Flying cars are probably a bad idea mainly due to the serious, possibly insurmountable traffic control problems while voice control for computers is questionable for the simple reason that there are other ways to issue those commands which are more practical in most situations.

    • K. T. Bradford

      10/20/2011 at 10:05 am

      I agree that flying cars aren’t so practical :) However, telling my phone to create a reminder for me is faster than typing it.

      If I enter the info on the screen, I have to open the app, click the add reminder icon (which may mean another two taps), enter the time and day for the reminder, and then type with an on-screen keyboard. That’s a lot of steps.

      Also, I think men often underestimate how much of a pain in the butt typing on screen is for those of us with nails. Guys have issues with this, too, sometimes, but I bet it’s more of a pain for women. Plus, on-screen keyboards require much more concentration and effort than physical keyboards and WAY more than just speaking.

      It takes 3.3 seconds to say: “Siri, remind me to call my father at 5:30.” I timed it.

      As it is I often use the speech to text thing on my Thunderbolt when I’m just too out of spoons to wrangle with the on-screen keyboard.

  6. Always

    10/20/2011 at 10:06 am

    Nice excerpt of Data talking to the computer (voiced by Majel)!  Data has an advanced computer in his own head, and he is suddenly bemused by the fact that he is doing what humans do: talk to himself, in order to work something out.  It does in fact often help us to figure stuff out, but is generally considered a crutch that we try to discourage; since it is a mark of people who can’t figure things out without the technique.

  7. HildyJ

    10/20/2011 at 12:56 pm

    Did you write your article by talking to your computer? How many comments were made by talking to a computer or phone?

    Computer speech recognition has been around for a long time and has never caught on. Ultimately I think that Rubin will be right and talking to your phone will not catch on. People will think it looks and sounds silly. Sort of like the Star Trek clothes.

  8. Roberto

    10/20/2011 at 6:05 pm

    I wonder if the irony is lost here that this guy is mad because someone from Google is telling him what he wants or doesn’t want, yet defending one of the biggest companies that tries to limit what you can and cannot do.

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