Siri pauses for a moment, thinking, then says: “It sure looks like rain today,” and brings up the weather forecast for your city.
“Schedule an appointment to go to the park on Friday,” you say.
“What time is your appointment?” Siri responds.
“5:30 in the morning.”
“Ok, it’s scheduled for this Friday.” And up pops a new entry in your iPhone calendar.
Ask it what time the sun will set in Cairo today, and it’ll tell you. Ask it for Apple’s latest stock price, and it’ll tell you. Ask it to take a note, and it’ll listen as you dictate. Ask it to clear your schedule, and it’ll let you know that it’s not authorized to delete more than one calendar item at a time.
And on and on and on.
Besides the contextual stuff, Siri does factual questions about as good as anyone. Thanks to a deal with Wolfram Alpha, a website that’s a sort of Google for ultra-nerds, the software has access to a massive store of data. How old is Barack Obama? Check. What’s the square root of 56? Check. How many people live in Europe? Check.
(In addition, Apple seems to have ordered an entire programming team to hardwire Siri with all manner of inside jokes. A lot of them are funny and a lot of them are about HAL or Star Trek and you’ll have heard them all by this time next week).
Of course, you can break Siri. If you have a thick accent, get ready for some hilarious misunderstandings. Justifiably, it has trouble with vague, stupid or meandering questions. Less justifiably, it doesn’t play nice with apps or iPhone settings, in that it can’t load the former or edit the latter.
And in Canada, your version of Siri is going to be even more hobbled. Ask Canuck Siri any location question – everything from the address of the nearest burger joint to any directions. Even, “Where am I?” – and you’ll get the same answer: “Sorry, I can’t provide maps and directions in Canada.”
It seems likely that Apple will begin supporting Canadian location data at some point in the future. But for now, the Siri that comes with your brand new iPhone has no idea where the hell it is.
But it’s not so much what Siri does right now that makes it important – Apple has promised to frequently update the software, and it’s supposed to get better on its own as it learns more about you. Rather, Siri represents Apple’s gambit in the quest to redefine how people – ordinary, decidedly un-techy people – use their gadgets.
For years, speech recognition has been the village idiot of the consumer technology world, a source of endless frustration bordering on comedy for anyone who has ever tried to dictate commands to a “listening” computer: You: “Computer, execute file Startup.bat.”
Computer: “I’m sorry, the command, “Sexy shoe fly star dump dog-bat” could not be found.”
You: “Oh for Christ’s...”
Computer: “Acknowledged, preparing to overwrite.”
This, for years, was the reality of trying to talk to machines. It’s only in the last few years, thanks to the work of folks such as Google and Nuance (the people behind the Dragon dictation software) and now Apple, that things have gotten much, much better. No longer do you have to make a fool of yourself by slowly pronouncing in your best robot voice every single syllable of a query you could have saved a lot of time and effort by just typing into Google. Some of these Siri commands, like note dictation or appointment scheduling – these things actually work better as voice commands.
And Siri isn’t just important because of what it can do, but because of the message it sends to every other tech company. For the past few years, everything Apple has done in the mobile space, its competitors soon copied. That the company has just released Siri’s robot-schoolmarm voice into the wild as perhaps the prime-billing feature on its newest iPhone means other tech giants are re-routing research money to their AI and voice-recognition teams as we speak.
That’s why, a few years from now, we’ll either think of Siri as a groundbreaking advancement to computer interaction, on par with the first computer mouse, or as that gimmick piece of software nobody ended up using. There’s no middle ground.
As far as the iPhone 4S goes, my big-picture qualms remain the same: Apple locks up its devices, controlling the experience, forcing you through their own ecosystem for a lot of your media and app consumption, and making it very difficult for you to tinker with the inner workings of the product you paid for.
But I also recognize that a lot of people don’t want to tinker, they want a device that just works. And no smartphone just works better than the iPhone. In that respect, the iPhone 4 was the best smartphone in the world, and the 4S is a little better.