Monday, October 24, 2011

Apple's Siri will need to learn new tricks

Summon Siri, the digital assistant contained within the iPhone 4S, and ask: "Why is it so hard to find good help these days?"

"I don't know what you mean," answers the robotic female voice.

Despite all of the quirky, saucy and entertaining responses to oddball remarks -- like "I'm drunk" (Siri returns a list of taxi services) or "What do you look like?" ("Shiny") -- Siri is unable to deliver on many basic commands.

For example, the voice-command service refuses to launch applications. ("I can't do that for you, Mark. I'm sorry to let you down.") The iPhone 4S has an improved camera and a button on the lock screen to quickly access it, but Siri is not a photographer. ("I can't take your pictures for you.") Twitter is embedded in the new version of Apple's mobile software, but ask Siri to tweet, and it says, "Sorry Mark, I can't help you with Twitter."
A glaring omission, which would happen to be a major technical undertaking for Apple, is the inability for third-party developers to tie their apps into Siri. At launch, Apple included data from Yelp for restaurant and retail recommendations, and the Wolfram Alpha search engine for a wide swath of data queries such as city populations and currency conversions.

However, the other 500,000 or so programs on the App Store can't interact with Siri. Brady Forrest, who organizes technology conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he'd like to be able to call up Siri to identify songs with Shazam, get food delivered or order a product on

But this would be possible only if Siri's functions were unlocked in the same way a developer can access the phone's camera or gyroscope.

"My concern is that Siri will be more constrained by 'biz dev' than by technology," Forrest said, basing his worries on Apple favoring Yelp over Google for local business reviews.

What's more frustrating is that the original Siri app, which Apple shut down after the iPhone 4S was released, was able to accomplish tasks through other services. It could order movie or concert tickets, book restaurant reservations using OpenTable, and call a cab via Taxi Magic. It could also tweet.

Perhaps an open framework is coming. Apple typically does not discuss future releases, and the Siri reborn for the iPhone 4S is less than a week old. On its website, Apple lists 18 apps that Siri works with, two of which, Maps and Yelp, are U.S.-only. The company says it is still working to add new features to the service. "Siri is currently in beta, and we'll continue to improve it over time," Apple's website says.

For the things Siri can do, it (she?) does them well. It can pull up directions, transcribe written notes, create calendar appointments, and remind me to take out the trash at 9 p.m. or whenever I arrive home

Siri's voice recognition technology is adept at interpreting my mumbles and whispers. (It's still awkward to talk to a gadget in public.) And whether I say "text" or "message" or "send an SMS," Siri knows what I mean.

But as I turn to Siri more frequently, I have run into some walls.

I can dictate text messages and e-mails, which can then be read back to me, but Siri won't read me my e-mail messages aloud, which would be useful for when I'm driving. And Siri can't record audio to Apple's own app. "I haven't yet learned dictation, Mark. You'll have to use the Voice Memos app for that," Siri says.

While Siri can't access songs contained within MOG, Pandora or Spotify, it can play an album from Apple's own music app, much like the old Voice Control feature. Yet it can't start a movie stored in Apple's videos app.

Using Voice Control instead of Siri remains an option, which is convenient because Siri requires an Internet connection. But when the phone doesn't have Web access, say in the subway, the system does not automatically switch from Siri to Voice Control.

Customers around the world have complained that Siri can only operate in English, French and German. Apple says more languages, including Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish, will be integrated next year.

Maybe demanding an assistant be quadrilingual is asking too much. Comedian Stephen Colbert poked fun at the high expectations for Siri on his show, jokingly asking his phone to write lines for him.

But as users get accustomed to shouting demands at their phones and having them fulfilled, Apple -- like its competitors in Microsoft's Bing or Google's voice search -- has more work to do to translate into voice commands all of the functions that are currently just a few taps away.

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