By now everyone has heard the deafening buzz surrounding Siri, Apple’s headline-grabbing virtual assistant and the key selling point of the new iPhone 4S. Most people have probably seen the TV commercials in which people from every consumer demographic turn to Siri with a seemingly boundless list of tasks, from texting their significant others to setting a reminder to buy milk to figuring out how to tie a bow tie. But what everybody probably wants to know – even those who may have spent a little time with Siri – is just how useful the seemingly too-good-to-be-true digital sidekick actually is. We’ve pestered Siri with countless requests since she arrived with our launch-day iPhone 4S, and we’ve thought long and hard about the role she can play in the daily digital lives of people today and tomorrow. Our finding? Siri isn’t perfect. She makes some silly mistakes. And in the grand scheme of things, her uses are pretty limited. But when you ask her to remind you to do something, she really remembers. When you tell her to text something, she does. And when you ask her “Who’s the boss?” she pulls up info on Bruce Springsteen. The most mind-blowing thing about Siri is that, as impossibly cool as she’s made to seem on TV, she’s as good as advertised.
When Siri was first announced, our biggest concern was that voice recognition has never seemed ready for prime time. Even the best dictation applications have been to imprecise especially useful, and don’t get us started on Apple’s own frustratingly ineffective Voice Control. How well could Siri possibly work, we wondered, if it couldn’t understand our questions and sent gibberish-filled text? Thankfully, this has proven to be yet another area in which Apple has succeeded after so many others have failed. Siri won’t understand everything that you say, and you have to speak a little stiffly for best results, but its dictation is highly accurate. Dictating emails and text messages is so fast that the time you spend cleaning them is negligible. You can even tell Siri to add punctuation as you speak, using commands such as “period,” “quote/end quote,” “caps on,” and “new line.” And Siri will take dictation in any application that incorporates the standard iOS 5 keyboard, with a quick tap of a new microphone key.
As with dictation, we found that several of Siri’s biggest benefits come from its most basic functions. Playing music in the car, for example, is much easier (and safer) with Siri playing the role of your personal DJ, especially if your car is filled with kids who constantly call out random requests from the backseat. Simply telling Siri to “play ‘Mickey Mouse Clubhouse'” or “play some pop songs” gets the music going quickly, even from your phone’s Lock screen, and does so without you having to take your eyes off the road to fumble through long lists of artists, albums, and playlists. It is also handier to say “Call my wife” than to launch the phone application and scroll through your contacts to find her. Siri is also the ultimate calculator, able to convert measurements, determine appropriate tip amounts, and perform complex mathematical formulas without your needing to know how they work. It is little things like these that have already wedged Siri firmly into our daily lives.
What’s really exciting about Siri is its seemingly unlimited potential for future growth. Since all of Siri’s thinking and fact-checking is done on remote servers and not on your phone, it stands to reason that Apple can improve Siri’s performance and evolve it’s functionality as quickly and as often as it chooses, possibly without the need for constant firmware upgrades. We’ll be surprised if many of the rough edges found in the current beta version of the software aren’t smoothed out within the next few months, followed by some obvious enhancements to its existing functionality. Siri can read an incoming text, for example, but it currently can’t read older text, emails, books, web pages, or anything else. It can list nearby movie theaters, but can’t tell you what’s playing at them. It can help you create a note, but can’t delete one.
Those shortcomings should be easy to address; it will be much more interesting to see Siri integrate with more applications, and with more data sources beyond Yelp and Wolfram Alpha. An ESPN or Yahoo Sports partnership, for example, could potentially allow us to ask Siri “Who’s winning the Lakers game?” And with Fandango support, we could ask Siri to “Order two tickets for the Immortals.” And don’t expect such useful features to stay restricted to the iPhone. Siri’s support for the next iPad is all but guaranteed (in fact, we’re wondering why it isn’t already available for iPad 2), and if the latest internet rumors are to be believed, it won’t be long before we can ask the virtual assistant to fetch our favorite shows on a Siri-powered Apple HDTV. And from there… user interface and form factor could undergo radical changes. An iPhone, for example, is the size and shape that it is partly because your thumb needs to be able to reach all the corners of its screen, and because the keys of an onscreen keyboard need a certain amount of real estate to be functional. But the more we can interact with our phones without touching or typing, the less the hardware will be constrained by the factors that have determined the appearance of our devices thus far.
After spending so much time with Siri, we’re convinced that the feature isn’t a flash-in-the-pan-gimmick – it shares the key qualities that define all of Apple’s game-changers: it makes frequent everyday functions faster, easier, and more enjoyable to perform. It’s got that Apple magic that draws people in and delights them, but more importantly, it’s significantly useful. We’re more than willing to put up with the occasional curious glance from a stranger to avoid having to laboriously type a text message with the cramped onscreen keyboard.
And still, the Siri that we have today is just a starting point, raw and far from finished. Years from now, this initial version will no doubt seem vastly inferior to the improvements we’ll have grown accustomed to. But we’ll also look back with a certain awe and say, “That’s where it all started.”