With the release of the iPhone 4S, Apple fans who rushed to buy the latest generation of the smartphone have had a chance to get acquainted with Siri, a virtual personal assistant.
The magic of Siri is that it translates your voice commands into complex tasks. For instance, in the demo at he iPhone 4S launch, Scott Forstal, Senior Vice President iOS Software, simply asked the service: "What is the weather like today?"
Siri interpreted the question and took the location information from the phone to provide the local weather forecast. That's a pretty simple question, but Forstal went on to ask Siri whether he would need a raincoat today, and after checking the forecast, the virtual assistant responded: "It sure looks like rain today."
When Siri was introduced, many analysts pointed out that Google already offered a similar service, Google Voice Actions for its Android handsets. With the iPhone versus Android war heating up on a number of fronts, Siri was always going to be viewed in that context, but as Greg Sterling pointed out on Search Engine Land, Siri still relies on Google to complete a lot of its tasks.
This is about co-opetition rather competition. Co-opetition is the concept in the technology world that companies both compete and cooperate depending on their self interest. Siri will drive more mobile traffic to Google.
At the moment, Siri is relatively limited in terms of what it can do on the internet. It will find answers to factual questions, using not only Google but also Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram Alpha is a service created by the makers of the Mathematica, a technical computing platform. Alpha has access not only to a lot of data sets including historical, chemical and financial, just to name a few.
Like Siri, Alpha has natural language processing capabilities so that I can ask: What is Apple's current stock price? It returns not only the current stock price but also automatically translates that price into a number of currencies. Alpha can has information regarding earthquakes, the price of oil or chemical elements, such as Thorium.
Users are already clamouring for Siri to add a range of other web services. Steven Sande, writing at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, listed ten things that he wants to be able to do with Siri, and many of them relied on other web services.
For instance, he wanted to use Siri to check in using location-based networks like Foursquare, to make reservation at a restaurant using the OpenTable service or if he is feeling unwell to have a conversation with Siri about his symptoms with information from WebMD.
Watch Youtube video of Siri launch
It's possible that Siri launched using Google and Wolfram Alpha because both already have voice-friendly, natural language processing capabilities, but with the potential use that Siri could enable with services like OpenTable, it's easy to see why web services, especially those tied to local shopping and services would be clamouring to be Siri-enabled.
Power with personality
Many analysts were quick to point out that voice commands have been available for phones for ages. Sebastian Anthony at ExtremeTech put the date at 2000 with the release of the Nokia 3310.
However, one thing that was quickly noted about Siri is that she has more personality than other voice-enabled services. This is something that has always set Apple apart. It understands that power is only one selling point for technology and that personality is also important. Apple has built its brand by using subtle touches, both in design and interface to create an emotional bond between its technology and its customers.
It goes back to the early days of the Macintosh, when Steve Jobs showed a demo of the computer talking. The computer was only reading from a script. It wasn't actually having a conversation with Jobs, but the illusion was part of Jobs' and Apple's magic. It was an illusion, a trick, and for Apple critics, they resent it, often viscerally so, and see it as nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
The human brain is wired to see human traits in inanimate objects, and Apple plays to this. Siri is the most advanced example of this. Apple has anticipated several silly questions that people would ask Siri and has obligingly provided several humorous answers drawing on geek pop culture including the movie 2001, the writings of British science fiction legend Douglas Adams and Monty Python.
For instance, referring to the HAL 9000, the homicidal super computer in 2001, Siri says:
Command: Open the pod bay doors
Answer: That's it...I'm reporting you to the Intelligent Agents' Union for harassment.
Question: Can you sing?
Answer: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...
Question: Do you know HAL 9000?
Answer: Everyone knows what happened to HAL. I'd rather not talk about it.
It has already spawned several blogs just to collect these answers. Siri's got sass, and that little touch of humour and humanity is what sets Apple apart. No one is going to bond with Google Voice Actions, but they'll make a date with Siri.