The rabid Android robots and fanatic Apple fanbois are at each other’s throats again: This time the bickering is about Siri, the talking artificial intelligence engine baked into iOS 5 and running on the dual-core A5 chip in the new iPhone 4S.
Android fans claim their phones have had several Siri-like apps since the beginning of time, or thereabouts. Edwin and Speaktoit spring to mind. Android 2.2 also has Voice Actions, which, like Siri, lets users speak messages (rather than typing them), search the Web, make notes, and, most notably, receive voice turn-by-turn navigation (which Siri does not). Google plans to update Android’s voice input engine with Android 4.0 on the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
Apple fans counter that the iPhone also had voice-command functions prior to the iPhone 4S, but the iPhone and Siri will do something Android hasn’t been able to do: make voice input and response a standard way of interacting with the phone.
Before Siri was baked into iOS 5, it was a popular iPhone app. Fire it up, and Siri would give directions to the nearest coffee shop or gas station, find restaurants, show movie times, among other Web-related tasks. But Apple spent millions to acquire Siri last year because Steve Jobs saw its potential as a full-blown artificial intelligence engine that, when baked into the OS, could access task apps.
For iPhone owners who don’t have the Siri app, a slimmed-down version of a voice-activated control system has been available. By holding down the home button on the iPhone 3GS, you can gain access to the system – holding down the home button on the iPhone 4S brings up Siri – and give it limited commands, from playing songs to calling someone on your contacts list.
I don’t know about Android users, but I rarely used the Siri app and the voice-activated control system.
While the Siri app offered a glimpse of the possible future, an early version of the Star Trek computer, it just wasn’t practical. You had to wait for the app to launch and then could only ask very basic questions. I used the voice-activated control system on occasion to make a phone call or play a song, but found it didn’t have enough functionality or ability to understand native speech.
Bottom line: I often forgot that the Siri app and voice-activated control system were even on my iPhone. My guess is that many Android owners share similar experiences.
Enter Siri. I’ve only had the iPhone 4S for a week or so but have quickly become a Siri power user. Mind you, I was very skeptical at first, given my lackluster experience with the Siri app and voice-activated control system. Moreover, the first day Siri was bogged down with all the newbie iPhone 4S users hitting the service.
Siri eventually won me over because of the enormous number of tasks it can handle. By far, the best tasks are the reminder function and the ability to input calendar items.
I probably ask Siri to remind me about something or put an appointment in my calendar at least twice a day. I’ve used the GPS-enabled feature of the reminder function only once – as in, “Remind me to pick up sushi after I leave work” – but just knowing it’s there is a bit of a thrill. I soon realized that I had been subconsciously avoiding typing appointments in my calendar because it took so long.
Now I find myself asking Siri to do more things, including basic tasks. For instance, I almost always use Siri to play songs, albums and playlists, and to make phone calls to people in my contact list. Once, I quickly needed a two-minute timer when grilling steaks, and Siri started the timer in mere seconds.
Here’s a hidden use case: When having trouble spelling a word, you just ask Siri. Siri will repeat your question in text form before having to “think about that” and searching the Web. But the text already gives the answer, of course. It’s a great spellchecker.
Not everything, though, should go through Siri. For instance, I don’t dictate text messages to Siri. My mind just doesn’t work that way. I tried Siri a few times and ended up rambling and stuttering my way through. Punctuation was off, too.
Once Siri gets you hooked for, in my case, reminders and calendar items, you’ll begin to rely on it for other tasks and new ones you hadn’t even considered. Apple knows how to set the hook.
Siri had to be lightening quick, thus the need to run on A5 and have fast network speeds – all in the iPhone 4S. Siri also had to be able to make sense of the mutterings and ramblings of native speech. Apple avoided having too many failures that would put off users, either by Siri taking too long or being unable to recognize the question or task.
The other part of Siri’s success has to do with its access to a range of apps and functions (reminder, calendar, clock, contacts, Safari, notes, phone, messages, etc.). Like a networking effect, more functions increase Siri’s value and use. This is why Siri couldn’t be a standalone app but built into iOS.
To all the Android fans claiming Android phones had Siri functionality first, the truth is that it doesn’t matter. Android was unable to move voice-activated control into the mainstream. On the other hand, the magic of Siri lies in iPhone owners using voice-activated control regularly, which will breed familiarity and change the way people interact with computers.
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.