» aron cares about Siri

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.

» Year in review: 2008

2008 was a pretty busy year — a lot of things happened that made it quite a ride. I thought I would take a moment to go over some of the more notable events that have occurred in the last 366 days.

UPDATE: It took me almost three months to realize that last year was a leap year. My apologies to 02/29!

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» iTunes 8 and the ridiculous hardware requirements

I knew Apple hated you if your hardware was old, but I didn’t think iTunes hated you too!  Apparently, if you want to watch HD TV shows using iTunes you are going to need at least a 2.0ghz Core 2 Duo processor.  Now I don’t know about you, but 2 of my 3 Macs (purchased within the last 2 years) do not meet this requirement.  And to be perfectly honest, I’m a little offended!  One of the two is a 2-year old MacBook PRO.  The Applecare hasn’t even expired on that bad boy and already I need to upgrade if I want to watch HD on it.  Wow.

I plan on doing some further testing of this to verify, hopefully the dire warning is all smoke and mirrors.  If there is a true limit I may need to go ape on somebody’s face.

UPDATE: News of iTunes 8 ridiculous hardware requirements were greatly exaggerated.  I tested HD TV shows on a 1.83ghz Core 2 Duo Mac mini and a 2.0ghz Core Duo MacBook Pro and in both cases the episode played without issues.

» Now Featuring Pretty Permalinks!

In case you weren’t already aware this site or blog, whichever you prefer, is running on Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.2 (not server) and is powered by the WordPress blogging engine.  Because this site is running on a simple Mac mini with Apache enabled the project is extremely “DIY” and as such I have had to figure it out as I go along.  No fancy hosts or one-click installs here, everything has been extremely manual; except, of course, the Famous 5 minute WordPress Installation!

One hurdle I have had to overcome is being able to use pretty permalinks to make my site more friendly.  Permalinks (short for permanent link, get it?) is a static URL to some content on a site.  That content can be a specific page, a particular article/post, or a collection of posts within a certain category.  

By default WordPress’s permalinks follow this format: http://somesite.com/index.php?p=1 and unfortunately that format is just plain ugly.  Having a pretty permalink like this: http://somesite.com/2008/01/01/sample-post/ means hyperlinks on your site and around the web will be more attractive and usable to others.

Read on if you want to know my story about the trouble and success I had with getting pretty permalinks working on my site.

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» FancyZoom really rocks my socks (and my site)

FancyZoom 1.1 (released in February) from Cabel Sasser is a bit of JavaScript used on Cabel’s blog and later rolled to Panic’s site is a very attractive way of implementing thumbnail viewing on your site.  From the site, It is “Designed to view full-size photos and images inline without requiring a separate web page load” and a wonderful job it does at that!

It is a breeze to install for anyone running their own site with instructions that are easy to follow.  When I ran into a snag and emailed Cabel he responded with the help needed to realize it was my own fault.  This alone is quite a feat considering I’m not a commercial user.

According to the site FancyZoom is free for non-commercial sites; however, if your site is of the revenue-generating sort Cabel requests a one-time fee of $39 / site.

Feel free to peep the demo (click the thumbnail) I have set-up below or visit Cabel’s site here to intall it yourself!

» Hosts file issue

When I was first setting up wordpress on my Mac mini (which as you’ll recall is on my dedicated DSL line) I ran into a problem using the dynamic DNS name I had set-up.  With wordpress when I wanted to visit the site from inside my LAN it would automatically re-direct to the location of the set determined in settings.  This caused a problem because that location pointed to my dynamic DNS which in turn pointed to my WAN IP address and well as you can imagine wordpress go boom.

My temporary workaround during installation and initial set-up was to ignore this entirely as I was only working on the site from home.  This was short-lived as I realized I had a life and wanted to work on the site when not sitting in my home office.  Oh, yeah, and I guess I wanted the rest of the internet to have access as well – I suppose that was a factor as well.

What I ended up doing was using two hosts files, one that had the following line:

10.0.1.195     aroncares.dnsdojo.com

and another that had that same line commented out:

#10.0.1.195     aroncares.dnsdojo.com

To quickly switch back and forth I used two shell scripts, set to open by default using Terminal, that copied a “home.hosts” or “away.hosts” file on top of the hosts file.  (FYI, in Leopard, this file is located at /etc/hosts)  This worked great and was easy enough, but it didn’t have the panache that I was looking for in this situation.

The final solution that I worked out is really everything that I want (unless you include my desire to have this site hosted elsewhere) given the situation.  What I ended up doing was taking a crash course on AppleScript and writing an application that would simply ask me whether I’m home or away and act accordingly.  Interestingly I was able to give the shell script root privileges which is required to make changes to the hosts file.  For anyone that is interested I have pasted the syntax of the script after the jump.

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» Day 2 – some small fixes and more info

Utilizing my EXTREMELY limited (non-existent) knowledge of PHP I managed to create a Page.php template separate from the Articles.php template. This resolved one of my issues with this theme – specifically, since there was not previously a Pages.php template my About and Contacts pages were simply using the posts template – not attractive.

I also dugg into the CSS a little bit and changed a few colors around to suit my liking. While I was doing that I discovered some sidebar stuff that could (possibly) be tweaked to make it (and my search widget) less ugly. I know a TINY bit more CSS than I do PHP so I stumbled my way through rather than commenting-out random lines and crossing my fingers.

Here are some details about the site that might interest anyone who is curious… Since I am not financially capable (broke) I cannot currently afford paying someone else to host the site. It’s another monthly bill and I would rather buy a house. That being said I am hosting the site on my Mac mini using my business DSL line. Until I get a domain set up I’m using the free and awesome dynamic DNS service. It is particularly nice because for OS X there is a dashboard widget that updates dynDNS of your IP address.

I know you’re probably thinking “oh crap, if three or more people are on this site it’s going to crash” – well, you’re probably right. Actually, I have more faith in Apache, MySQL, and PHP on my Mac mini than I do my ISP’s ability to handle the bandwidth.

I consider this quite a feat because of two points 1) I know almost nothing about most web technologies – the fact is I’m a n00b. But I’m proud to admit it and determined to change it. I think that’s important. The reason this is a feat is because it was incredibly easy to set up using OS X.

The UNIX underpinnings in 10.5 make my Mac mini a fairly robust server for a fraction of the cost of an Xserve. Enabling Apache required me to simply check a box – that’s it. Granted there were a few other steps involved in enabling PHP and installing MySQL; but let’s be realistic, one is going to have to dirty one’s hands at some point.

Please pardon me if I’m sounding too much like a “fanboy”. In all honesty, I would install whichever OS made it the easiest – I’m not afraid of using a Linux distro. or installing Windows on a Mac. The fact is that OS X made it the easiest to accomplish the goals I wanted to accomplish.