Apple’s Siri Is More Than a Crackerjacks Prize


Like the prize inside a Crackerjacks or kids' cereal box, Siri, Apple's voice-controlled digital assistant, is the raison d'être for buying an iPhone 4S, especially if you already own a 4.

A cult of personality has already arisen around Siri. Numerous bloggers have cited her snappy answers to stupid questions, such as "What are you wearing?" "Where can I hide a body?" "Open the pod bay doors," "Will you marry me?" "What are you wearing?" etc.

But I hope you aren't thinking of buying an 4S just to get a really fancy Magic 8 Ball. Siri does a lot more than wittily answer esoteric questions. She could represent the first true user interface paradigm shift since the iPhone and its capacitive touchscreen, and perhaps since the Mac and the Graphical User Interface 27 years ago.

And like any paradigm shift, Siri will change how you behave, and introduce a whole new set of social rules of engagement.

Fun is no substitute for function. You'll quickly run out of silly Siri questions and tire of the emptiness of her clever but canned answers.

But for me, the silliness served its purpose. Dreaming up trick questions to ask her (yes, I'm already anthropomorphisizing her) taught me how to talk to Siri and find out what she can do — and what she couldn't.

This inculcation is critical because Siri's paradoxical no-touch control of a touchscreen device demands a radical interface behavior change as much as point-and-click did in a world that knew only c: prompts.

What Siri Knows And When She Knows It

First, Siri needs to connect to the Internet to work. I thought she would work on Wi-Fi, but she complained about a lack of connection when I tried. Because she's communicating with the cloud, there's a lag of two or three seconds between answer and response.

And you don't have to train Siri to understand your distinct dialect or accent, and you don't have to adapt to some weird Siri syntax — for instance, you don't have to begin your query with "Siri?" Just ask her a question like you would, say, a librarian.

Your first move with Siri on the job is not to tap on an app, but sling the iPhone up to your ear or press-and-hold the Home button, wait for Siri's PING cue, or press the talk button on an in-line mic on a set of iPhone-compatible headphones, or Bluetooth speaker earpiece, and ask your question. Siri speaks in a sweet only slightly computerized female voice, which made me feel a little sexist. I hope Apple considers adding a male alternative.

Siri performs two categories of tasks: she answers information questions, and she performs functions your basic Apple apps perform.

On the former, you can ask basic questions — the time, the weather, stock prices. Siri also can double as a calculator. She knows Wikipedia kind of stuff, except the answers don't come from Wikipedia. They come from something called WolframAlpha, a computational knowledge engine. She can find information on names and places that can be looked up in Wikipedia, such as "Who is Alexander Graham Bell?" but if you ask "Who invented the telephone?" she asks if you want to do a Web search to answer.

Siri won't open an app, but she can perform an operation within that app. For instance, she won't be able to open your email, but she can find a specific email, such as "Open up the last email from John Doe." You can ask her to set a reminder (which she will in Reminder), how to get from one place to another (from Maps), take a note (in Notes), make an appointment (in Calendar), even address, write and send an email.

Siri is a wonderful time-saver. She just takes a bit of getting used to. But Apple really needs to play Yenta and make a match between Siri and IBM's Jeopardy-winning Watson. Now that would be one smart personal assistant.

Talk To Me

One aspect of Siri, I think, has gone under if not unreported — her speech-to-text dictation capability. Unlike the numerous standalone text-to-speech apps, Siri's dictation is integrated into Apple's text apps — email, texting, Notes, Pages. There's a microphone icon on the keyboard wedged between the 123 and the space bar.

Tap the microphone and, when pinged, you speak, then hit "done." Speak one sentence or several. Siri flashes three purple dots until the server converts your dictation, which takes around five seconds, depending on how much you dictated.

Siri does have trouble with some words ("endure" always came out "indoor"), but I found her 99 percent accurate. You will have to get used to saying "period" and other punctuation as well as "new paragraph," or you'll get run on sentences and blocks of text.

So why would people use Siri on an iPhone? After all, speech-to-text capabilities on a desktop isn't exactly mainstream.

For many people, typing on a full-sized keyboard is the way most of us have created prose for more than a century. Dictation, no matter how it's portrayed in movies, is hard. It's almost like giving a speech. Except most people don't talk like they write and vice versa.

On a phone, though, text creation on a cramped touchscreen QWERTY is a dirty business. Too many accidental adjacent key taps mar the creation flow, and touch-typing is, of course, impossible.

Plus, most text creation assignments on an iPhone are short, so don't require President Obama's speaking skill. Annoyed touchscreen tappers are likely to put up with the occasional misunderstanding hiccups and learn to speak punctuation rather than tap around the symbols screens to find them.

So while dictation on a desktop hasn't caught on, on a smartphone it becomes a savior. And once our dictation muscles are developed on the iPhone, they can be transferred to the desktop, where Siri will hopefully end up.

Be Polite

Shifting from iPhone's app-centric navigation to task and voice-centric is like learning to drive on the left — re-training your iPhone interface muscles might take a while.

Given 4S' record-breaking sales, Apple's marketing muscle and the publicity Siri has already generated, though, Siri could become the most popular gal around, which may not be a good thing. If you thought people talking loudly on their phone in a restaurant or some other public environment was rude, imagine how annoying someone talking to their phone will be.

Considering how well she works, it's surprising Siri is still in beta. It'll be fascinating to watch how she grows and becomes even more knowledgeable and functional.

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