Dig­i­tal as­sis­tants have range of ap­pli­ca­tions, but don’t call them apps

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - Bob and Joy Sch­wabach can be reached by email at bob­schwa@gmail.com and joydee@on­comp.com.

When ex­tra fea­tures are added to smart­phones or the In­ter­net, they’re called apps — short for “ap­pli­ca­tions.” Maps and games are ex­am­ples. When fea­tures are added to Ama­zon’s dig­i­tal as­sis­tants Echo and Dot, they’re called skills. When fea­tures are added to Google Home, they’re called ac­tions.

Why the dif­fer­ence? We don’t know, and we didn’t make this stuff up. You have to re­al­ize that dozens of meet­ings, at­tended by high-pow­ered ex­ec­u­tives, are re­quired to make such de­ci­sions. We weren’t in­vited.

Well, these giz­mos seem to be the fastest-grow­ing prod­ucts on the planet, just ahead of or­ganic car­rot juice. And so we looked at what ac­tions Google can take.

Users of ei­ther de­vice most of­ten ask for weather or mu­sic. But what about more dif­fi­cult com­mands, like: “Tell me about Toke­lau.” This is an is­land in the Pa­cific Ocean half­way be­tween Hawaii and New Zea­land, and we are al­ways anx­ious for news. Cur­rently, there’s not much hap­pen­ing on Toke­lau, where 1,400 peo­ple live in a space about half the size of Bryant, so there’s no news.

But other in­ter­est­ing ac­tions are pop­ping up all the time. Here are some we’ve tried so far:

Quora. This is our fa­vorite ques­tion-and-an­swer site. There are more than 100 mil­lion ac­tive daily users, and they can an­swer re­ally ob­scure ques­tions. We asked Google Home to launch Quora, and then asked: “What is the best way to lower choles­terol for a blood test?” Google said the best an­swer was from Joy Sch­wabach, who has an­swered lots of ques­tions on Quora and has 140,000 views. This turns out to be the same Joy Sch­wabach whose name is on our col­umn. (How many could there be?) The an­swer she gave is rather lengthy, so we won’t go into it. (We might note that no one pays for this in­for­ma­tion.)

Ran­dom Con­ver­sa­tions. This enor­mously use­ful ac­tion al­lows you to say just about any­thing, and some­one out there in the great be­yond will say some­thing back. For ex­am­ple, a stranger asked us what we did when lonely or bored. We had much to say on this sub­ject, but un­for­tu­nately we cut her off ac­ci­den­tally. Lonely Planet. You men-

tion an area of the world you’re in­ter­ested in, like Italy, and get news of at­trac­tions. A fol­lowup email gives you more de­tail on which­ever one you want to know about. We learned about the Mu­seum of San Marco in Florence.

Cool Events tells you about meet-ups and shows in your area. Un­for­tu­nately, the first one they told us about had started an hour ear­lier. Ah well, a few bugs to work out.

An­i­mal Quiz. Your Google Home de­vice will ask ques­tions and try to guess the an­i­mal you’re think­ing of. When we tried it, Google failed to guess “turkey.”

Ge­nius just gives you in­for­ma­tion about songs. (It’s a very lim­ited ge­nius.) It didn’t rec­og­nize “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” and told us it was prob­a­bly an al­bum by Jay Z and Kanye West. Seems un­likely.

Chill of­fers movie rec­om­men­da­tions.

We said we liked Sleep­less in Seat­tle for its ro­mance, and it said we might like Man Up, Mr. No­body, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road

and sev­eral oth­ers. Never heard of them.

Re­v­erse Math. You’re given an an­swer, such as 90, and have to think of three num­bers that when mul­ti­plied to­gether get that. How about nine, 10 and one? That was easy.

Google Home has nearly a hun­dred of these ac­tions to choose from. (Ama­zon’s Alexa, the voice ser­vice that pow­ers Echo and Dot, has 8,000.) To find what’s avail­able, tap the Google Home app on your phone, then “more set­tings,” then “ser­vices.”

Some are re­mark­ably spe­cific, such as the dates and hours for Seat­tle’s pub­lic swim­ming sea­son, the lunch menu at St. Joseph’s school (they didn’t bother to say which St. Joseph’s school, and there are dozens), and the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sched­ule in Prague. Mr. Doggy tells you what’s safe for your dog to

eat. (Food, we would guess.) There’s no search func­tion; you have to scroll through them all.

By the way, we’ve of­ten read that Google Home is bet­ter than Alexa in an­swer­ing ques­tions, but it’s a mixed bag. Alexa told us that Spain was big­ger than Swe­den, but Google Home said it didn’t know. Some­times Google knows but Alexa doesn’t. On the other hand, when you’re look­ing for Alexa’s new skills, rather than go through all 8,000, you can search by topic.

INTERNUTS StrangeUSA.com says it’s the ul­ti­mate col­lec­tion of the strange. Click on a U.S. state, then a city. We tried Joy’s old home­town of New­port Beach, Calif. The site said the Coron­ado Apart­ments, where her nephew lives, are haunted by the spirit of a wo­man. Lights go on and off, muf­fled voices are heard, and phan­tom mu­sic em­anates. (They just don’t un­der­stand the er­ratic power sys­tem in New­port Beach.) The

site said John Wayne haunts his yacht in New­port Bay. Bob has been on this boat and didn’t hear a peep. Bob says it’s more likely Wayne haunts John Wayne Air­port in Santa Ana; it’s been ranked as one of the 10 scari­est air­ports in the U.S.

KhanA­cademy.org has thou­sands of courses. A new one is “Pixar in a Box.” You learn how the peo­ple be­hind Toy

Story, Up and In­side Out cre­ate their movies.

“Lit­tle Kids and their Big Dogs.” Google that phrase. These are re­ally cute pho­tos.

“How to Use Steve Jobs’ In­sanely Sim­ple Strat­egy For Get­ting What You Want.” Google this phrase to find an ar­ti­cle in Inc. Magazine that in­cludes a video of Jobs, Ap­ple’s co-founder, ex­plain­ing his strat­egy: Just ask. As a 12-yearold, he called up the founder of Hewlett-Packard, who of­fered him a sum­mer job.

BOB AND JOY SCH­WABACH

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