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iPhone Lacks Conversational Aspects

2007 January 11
by Dan Miller

iPhone may be a tour-de-force for the touchscreen, but it’s inexplicably odd to introduce a new smartphone with so few speech-based features. I can hardly express how profoundly disappointed I am that this shiny, new thing – the first must-have product since Nintendo’s Wii – has less voice processing than Tickle-Me Elmo.

The product reflects several years of development invested in a visual user interface that, in typical Apple fashion, is indeed dazzling. Jobs’ demo at MacWorld this week also highlighted the ease at which users can use the multi-touch protocol on the large screen to interrupt their listening to take a phone call, interrupt a phone call to transmit a photo and then return to their private oblivion. With all the attention focused on the fancy, new screen and multi-touch controls, I can only imagine what the safety implications are for in-car use.

The lack of attention to the need for hands-free operation alone is shocking. There is no voice dialing (although, admittedly Cingular offers a network-based voice dialing service though the abbreviated code *08). There are no dictation capabilities for origination of text messages. Car-based voice command is out of the question. Heck, they don’t even support the use of voice search to select from a music catalogue – a service that Verizon has been offering to subscribers to its GetItNow music search.

All the more peculiar is the fact that Apple did win a patent for speech recognition in late October of last year. The patent, filed in February 2004, includes technology “assigning meanings to spoken utterances in a speech recognition system.” Perhaps future versions of the iPhone (which, as a name, could also change as Cisco currently holds the trademark for “iPhone”) will include this functionality.

Newton Revisited? No, But Sorely Lacking in Function
Still, the device has been branded a winner. All that anyone seems to be concerned about is the price (which many speculate will be subsidized through rebates from Cingular in return for a two-year term plan). But the real questions should address iPhone’s utility, and the classic question of whether offering iPod functionality bolted on to a limited-function smartphone is sufficient.

Apple has opted to support widescreen iPod functions (albeit with a different display, operating system and core processor), basic phone (with a local “Contact List”), Web browsing, text messaging and photo exchange (presumably through SMS). It has embedded both Yahoo! and Google’s search engine functions as well as Google Maps for support.

Out-of-the-box (which won’t be until later this June), the iPhone is not destined to be a platform for many of the high-growth areas of surrounding conversational commerce, such as speech-based local search, presence-based instant messaging or navigation. Jobs’ demo at MacWorld included a Google Maps search for a nearby Starbucks culminating with a prank call to order 4,000 lattes. This leaves the definition of next-generation functions up to Apple’s devoted community of application developers and partners.

Meanwhile, Speech-Based Search Advances
Outside MacWorld, the cause of speech-enabled mobile search is being advanced by others. VoiceBox and Nuance used CES as a venue to introduce enhancements to in-car navigation systems that will permit drivers to use the voice to input destination information. No more of the cumbersome poking at the touchscreen on your NeverLost system. Recall that VoiceBox, dating back to early 2006, has made some stunning in-car systems running in conjunction with IBM’s embedded ViaVoice.

We were disappointed to note that Yahoo!, while previewing Yahoo! Messenger for Windows Vista, did not integrate Vista’s much-touted speech recognition/dictation into its real-time communications, chat and IM services. Photo exchange and, eventually, video phones are today’s news. Yet, Opus Research will predict right now that just making the new devices respond to spoken commands will prove much more valuable.