Siri (beta) Assumes Primacy on iPhone 4S Home Button
Thanks to a surfeit of hype surrounding the imminent introduction of the iPhone5, the whole world was watching as Apple introduced (drum roll, please!) the Apple 4S. The disappointment was palpable among the analysts who, based on “leaks” to the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, were expecting a larger screen, better graphics and faster connections. But the one area where the new device does not fall short is that it marks the re-emergence of Siri, which Apple acquired in April of 2010.
On the iPhone 4S running iOS 5.0, holding the Home Button down for 10 seconds will start Siri. For many handsfree Bluetooth earbuds, holding the “activate” key down will do the same. Once invoked, Siri lets phone users speak to their phones in their own words. In the demo, Apple iOS engineer Scott Forstall showed three different ways to get Siri to provide local weather, ranging from “What’s the weather?” to “Do you think it will rain?” [Here's the commercial - complete with Ray Charles in the background - that Apple will be running to support Siri]
On prior versions of the iPhone, holding the Home Button down for 10 seconds invokes “Voice Control” which enables phone owners to use their voice to control playback on their iPhone or initiate phone calls. Deep integration of Siri enables users to treat their phones as a voice-activated assistant with the ability to conduct Web searches, dictate and play back text messages and carry out voice commerce (by search Yelp! or OpenTable to choose restaurants and book seats), in addition to voice dialing and media control.
The introduction of a Siri-powered Voice Assistant represents the “re-emergence” of Siri because a Siri app is already available as a free download from the iTunes AppStore. iPhone owners who now launch the app are greeted with this message:
I’ve been replaced! The new Siri is even smarter and better looking than me [sic], and waiting for you on the iPhone 4S. Ill be leaving for home Oct 15th
This signals that Apple is destined to de-activate Siri in two weeks, when it may move to the home button on all iPhones. But, in the mean time, it enables iPhone owners to use “plain English” (or the language of their choice) to find restaurants, nearby movies by title and showtimes, events and businesses. They can ask Siri about the weather (as was demonstrated in the live demo at the iPhone 4S launch), order a taxi, request reminders and even originate Twitter posts.
Introduction of Siri for the iPhone 4S represented a step forward for the service. Activation with the Home Button simplifies service activation. Close integration with message origination is an important enhancement. Most importantly, Apple – because it failed to introduce the iPhone 5 – in effect made Siri, and natural language interaction over its mobile devices, the center of attention. The only other features that merited mention as bold moves forward were the dual mode (CDMA/GSM) aspects of the new phone – making it in effect a ‘world phone,” and supposedly higher data transmission speeds.
The only step back was the characterization of Siri as a “beta” product. Phil Schiller, head of product marketing for Apple, sounded almost apologetic as he introduced Siri “as a beta version,” as if, were it to fail, he could say, “I told you so.” That said, the demos worked as anticipated and the crowd seemed impressed. In addition to getting weather information in three different ways, Forstall used Siri to set the phone’s alarm clock, listened to and replied to a colleague’s text message and provided instructions to the iPod application.
The relationship of Siri (which is “powered by Nuance”) to Nuance’s Dragon Go! is something of a conundrum. Both let users speak to their phones to use Phil Schiller’s words, “the way they wanna talk.” But Siri is initiated from the Home Button. Vlingo is in the running as well. It has been true to the Virtual Assistant roadmap that it outlined to us earlier this year.
Apple’s announcement of Siri should have a ripple effect as millions of iPhone users recognize that speech recognition works reliably and has been well integrated with the services that they regularly use. It feels like speech enabled mobile services have reached an important inflection point.