The iPhone 4S Has One Revolutionary Feature

Evan Niu
Evan Niu, CFA
Oct 8, 2011 at 12:00AM

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-ous potential
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.