Whenever I call some provider and I get some voice operated system, I cringe. It never quite works and you end up shouting at it as if it were hard of hearing. So why would I want that on my phone? Indeed, my iPhone has had voice control for some time and I’ve never used it. The Google app on the phone also has voice control but I end up using the keyboard. The same went for Siri in its iPhone app days. So I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of Siri integrated into the iPhone 4S.
Having used it for a day or so, I think this might actually useful this time. That is, Siri is a serious feature.
Why is that? Because in contrast to other voice control functions, this has a few key ones that are actually much much quicker than using fingers to find the right app. First, the weather. It is much easier to ask Siri something than to search for the weather app. The same goes for calculations. Ask Siri the “square root of something” and you get it instantly. The answer comes in 2 seconds rather than about 5-10. That’s a big improvement and it makes the difference. Basically, Siri is integrated with WolframAlpha making them both useful. This is, in part, because WolframAlpha is an excellent example of a content platform — presenting information in a structured way.
Second, it reads stuff to you. This is really useful when I’m in the car and receive a text. Siri will read it to me and I can reply without taking my hands off the wheel or eyes off the traffic.
Third, Siri allows me to easily set appointments and reminders. This is particularly useful because it understands the context of the conversation. For instance, I can ask it if I have any appointments today. Then I can say “how about tomorrow?” and it knows I am still asking about appointments. Same goes for the weather. “What’s the weather like?” “Will I need to take a coat?”
Fourth, and I am sure this will be actually useful when it comes to Canada, you can search for things in your current location. That features works in the US and if you speak with an American accent. It will also give you directions. Again, this is something sure to be useful when driving.
The point here is that Siri ventures into a set of activities that go beyond simply calling or playing music as previous voice recognition services have provided. It was very easy to use natural speech. That said, it isn’t perfect but it does the job enough of the time to make it something that can be used.
What does this all mean? The technology will progress. As Apple has integrated Siri in this way, with every conversation it receives data that improves the service. So by making it usable, Apple has put itself on a path to expand the network. And not just on the iPhone. I could easily imagine finding this useful on my computer as well and, of course, on an iPad. Moreover, as the makers of Siri pointed out, to allow people to be comfortable speaking with a cloud-based service requires lots of trust. Apple brings that.
There is much potential in opening Siri up. At the moment, you can use it to access Apple apps. That may change if it is integrated into app development. You can use Siri where ever there is a keyboard on the iPhone but there is surely much more possible here.
What Siri has done that so many others before have failed at is that it does not try to be universally good. As Horace Dediu notes, it is good at a small but limited set of tasks. But that is enough to make it useable. Having jumped over that hurdle it may grow into the serious voice control platform we have all been waiting for.