My apologies go to all the secretaries and personal assistants of the world, because Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is trying to make their roles obsolete with Siri, an "intelligent assistant."
Voice-recognition software has been around for years, albeit with its own shortcomings -- all those pesky Es, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Vs all sound alike! I'm not the only one who cringes whenever I call a company's customer-service line only to be greeted by a robotic voice asking me to lob phrases at it so it can guess what I need. It's within this context of initial skepticism that I approach Apple's bold attempts to revolutionize virtual personal assistants.
Historians may remember when Apple picked up the small startup back in April 2010, only two short months after its personal-assistant app made its way into Apple's App Store. Tuesday's announcement was mostly expected, and it was a long time coming since the original app hadn't been updated since October 2010. It was still listed in the App Store as recently as Tuesday morning but was promptly pulled after the official announcement.
Siri uses Nuance Communications' (Nasdaq: NUAN ) best-in-class voice-recognition technology, which means Nuance may see some upside even though the company will be pitching in from behind the scenes. Siri doesn't rely entirely on Nuance's technology, so it could get replaced if something better comes along; the company initially used Vlingo before switching to Nuance. Siri is hoping to change the game beyond the basic recognition, though, as its strengths lie within its intelligence.
There are numerous ways to say the same thing, and Siri aims to decipher them all and get to the heart of what you mean. If it doesn't quite get you, it will proactively continue to ask questions until it does. You'll be able to have it set reminders, change meetings and appointments, send texts, or find restaurants, for starters. It will also do grunt work and type as you dictate hands-free.
Siri is the only feature announced during Tuesday's event that has the potential to be revolutionary, since all the incremental hardware-specification improvements were merely evolutionary. Apple and the late Steve Jobs had long been trying to change the ways we interact with technology. As early as 1987, Apple released a concept video demonstrating a "Knowledge Navigator" device, which is an uncanny premonition of how Siri will probably function.
Although keyboards and mice aren't likely to go anywhere anytime soon, Apple was the first to make capacitive touch widely accepted with the iPhone, despite previous attempts by Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and its first wave of tablet computing. The problem back then was that the Windows wasn't optimized for touch interactions in the way that iOS or Windows 8 is.
Apple has multi-touch down pat. The next frontier of intuitive interaction is voice. Touch and voice combined as primary input methods can be a powerful duo that can fundamentally alter the way we communicate with our devices. Apple took its first stab with Voice Control in iOS 3, but Siri will try to take it to a new level: a level that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Microsoft, and Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) will have difficulty matching.
Even easier for a child to use
Apple's iDevices have long been casually described as so easy a child could use them. My 3-year-old daughter is already proficient with navigating iOS: unlocking the home screen, finding her game folder, launching and switching between games, and sending nonsensical texts to random people.
She's a bona fide talker but is still working on her reading and writing skills. Siri could potentially open up dozens of additional possibilities for her, although it won't help her Fruit Ninja skills at all. With only her voice, she could set up play-date appointments with her toddler friends, play her favorite episode of Ni Hao, Kai Lan, or create a reminder to wake up her parents at 4 a.m. saying she's simultaneously hungry, scared, and bored.
Apple is hoping that Siri will get to know you intimately. Google's pervasiveness in our digital personal lives allows Big G to cater its advertising business to our personal tastes, and Siri could be potentially employed to the same end. Apple's only real advertising business, iAd, is relatively small beans in the grand scheme of online advertising, but Siri could present an opportunity to broaden its reach. I don't think Apple will go there, but it could.
"A world-changing event"
In an interview with 9to5Mac, Siri co-founder Norman Winarsky detailed the type of raw computing power necessary to run Siri optimally. The software needs to cache data and access huge amounts of data, and it requires a powerful processor to crunch numbers.
He mentioned that when Siri first hit the iPhone 3GS, his team had to do all sorts of "optimizations and shortcuts" to get it to run efficiently. The dual-core ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH ) –based A5 processor in the iPhone 4S seems like a perfect fit, adding some context to why Siri will be exclusive to the iPhone 4S.
Before the unveiling, Winarsky described the possibility that Siri could become a mainstream virtual personal assistant as "a world-changing event," when considering how advanced it is relative to offerings like Google Voice Actions.
Siri is unlikely to make or break the purchase decision alone, but it may just tip the scales for those who are on the fence. If anyone's going to prove my initial skepticism wrong, it will be Apple.
With the passing of Apple's iconic leader, the iPhone 4S and Siri will embody Jobs' final vision of how to change technology's landscape that he imparted on us in his final days.