With the launch of iPhone 4S, Apple introduced a new take on the “digital assistant” meme of the last two decades. Siri, as “she” is affectionately called, listens to your natural-language commands and requests then responds by carrying out your desired task or returning the required information.
Officially, Siri is in beta and while performance is beyond expectations, it’s limits are not hard to find. The most obvious such limit is the always-on requirement for an internet connection. Your provider’s coverage and ubiquitous Wi-Fi notwithstanding, the devil is in the details. Put simply, much of the Siri magic relies on an Apple server. Obviously, when your connection goes down, Siri goes down with it. Worse than that, though, is what happens when Apple’s server becomes overloaded due to exceptional usage: Siri responds cryptically (if at all) about some sort of network connection error.
This is not a show-stopper unless it’s Monday morning after the weekend’s launch of the new iPhone and you’re trying to show your co-workers what Siri can do. As often is the case, you will resort to anecdotal evidence about the time you told Siri to wake you up from an afternoon nap or the iMessage conversation you had without touching the keyboard (both of which the new iPhone handled with aplomb).
We can assume that as usage normalizes and Apple adjusts, this limitation will become less of an issue. Still, as long as a remote server is required, you can expect Siri to stumble when there is a drastic increase in usage. My prediction is that the first major update to Siri will cause another bout of sluggishness as users are again attempting to find Siri’s boundaries.
Another limitation of Siri is the “lack” of 3rd party app support. If you cared about this sort of thing in 2007 when the original iPhone was announced, then this probably feels awfully familiar to you. Just like the original iPhone, there is a specific list of apps with which Siri is capable of interacting. Also like the original iPhone, there is 3rd party support it’s just not in the way everyone is expecting.
The original iPhone launched and it’s 3rd party app catalog was essentially limited to Google’s greatest hits — those being Maps and YouTube. Today’s iPhone has capability limited only by the imagination of the platform’s developers thanks to the launch of the App Store in 2008.
The storied success of the App Store has everyone begging for Siri’s integration with their existing collection of apps.
The storied success of the App Store has everyone begging for Siri’s integration with their existing collection of apps. Siri’s natural-language interpretation is so good, you actually feel like you should be able to say things like “send a tweet” or “check in at my current location.” Siri feels so natural but is confined to certain apps and because apps make the iPhone capable of anything, Siri feels held back in comparison.
This limitation, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. For now. Special care needs to be given to the handling of 3rd party app support for Siri. The App Store is replete with apps that mirror or improve existing functionality of iOS apps that are included by default. Thus, the problem becomes, how does Siri handle such requests as “remind me to call my mom in an hour” when it’s possible to have multiple apps for reminders.
I think that what will happen is that Apple will repeat what it did with the original iPhone. Sometime in the next year, Apple is going to release an SDK for the Siri platform. And, as with all iOS apps, Apple will retain strict control of what apps can and can’t do with Siri.
It seems obvious that Siri will eventually be able to integrate with other services like Facebook or Fandango. What is less obvious is how to deal with overlap. I envision Siri add-ons being categorized and given access to certain classes of commands/requests. However, it seems very un-Apple-y to have to say which app or service you want Siri to work with so the roll-out of 3rd party support is likely to move forward at a slow and careful pace.
You’ll notice that I didn’t say “Siri will eventually add 3rd party app support,” this is because it is already integrated with data sources outside of Apple’s control. For example, Yelp is used to list and rank nearby restaurants. Also, Wolfram Alpha handles a lot of information requests not related to what’s stored on your iPhone (i.e. How tall is Mt. Everest?). Siri already has a carefully selected group of 3rd party apps baked right in just like the original iPhone did.
Clearly Apple’s goal is to make Siri as much a part of iOS as touching the display is today.
Clearly Apple’s goal is to make Siri as much a part of iOS as touching the display is today. Because delighting customers in a consistent way is tough business, Apple is not going to want there to be any confusion. For example, it would be unacceptable for Siri to ask the user “which Twitter client should I use to post this update?” Just like with iOS’s touch navigation, the goal will be to simplify. If iOS is about reducing the complexity of a touch interface, then Siri is about reducing the complexity of a voice interface.
If forced to guess I could see some sort of settings panel to specify defaults to handle such overlaps in functionality. But even that is a bit of a stretch and could become overly-complex very quickly. That said, Siri will definitely be able to do more in the near future.
I’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of frustration playing with Siri. I really think that just like iOS and multitouch changed the way people think about interacting with their phones, Siri is poised to do the same.