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The Globe and Mail

Apple takes ambitious step for tech-kind with Siri

An Apple Store customer looks at the new Apple iPhone 4Gs on Oct.14, 2011 in San Francisco. The new iPhone 4Gs went on sale Friday and features a faster dual-core A5 chip, an 8MP camera that shoots 1080p HD video, and a voice assistant program.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple Inc. took one of the most ambitious products it has ever created and hid it inside an iPhone.

At one point on Friday, a Globe and Mail editor – a former technology section editor, at that – passed by my desk, where one of Apple's shiny new iPhone 4S units sat next to a now-dated iPhone 4. The editor picked both phones up and looked them over, convinced he could tell one from the other just by studying the outsides – he couldn't.

The iPhone 4S, as far as design goes, is an iPhone 4 clone. Only two slight seams on the sides distinguish the new model from the old. The design is still beautiful, the on-board speakers are still terrible, the physical buttons still in all the same places. So similar-looking are the two phones that people who held both at the Globe offices immediately turned into those optometrist patients that can't decide between lens 1 and lens 2. Maybe the iPhone 4S is heavier? Maybe not? About the same?

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But those similarities end once you peer under the hood. In terms of technical specifications, the iPhone 4S is a beast, running on a new dual-core chip that Apple claims can make the phone up to twice as fast. In reality, that claim is about as disingenuous as sales that advertise prices "up to" 50 per cent off. There's very little you can do with a 4S that will actually feel twice as fast. Game apps definitely run more crisply, thanks to Apple's new-found emphasis on faster graphics processing, but the difference between the 4S and the plain old 4 isn't mind-blowing. Both are still among the three or four smoothest-running phones on the planet.

The biggest hardware differentiator between Apple's two phones isn't the processor, it's the camera. The 4S comes packed with an 8-megapixel lens that takes exquisite photos. In fact, everything about the still and video camera capabilities of the 4S is absolutely stellar, from the 1080p high-def video to the low-light image-capturing. This is the first cellphone camera that doesn't appear to filter its subject matter through the eyes of a fast-moving drunk. If you've got a low-end SLR, this phone may just be a replacement.

Call quality is also supposed to be better on the 4S, thanks in large part to Apple's new anti-death-grip engineering that's supposed to keep signal strength high no matter how you hold the phone. All this may be true, but we didn't see much difference in call quality between the 4 and the 4S, except in cases where we went out of our way to hold the devices in outright silly ways. Data download speeds also seemed faster on the 4S. It's not next-generation, lighting 4G stuff, but there were no delays in playing YouTube videos on the 3G connection (although you'll probably spend most of your data-eating time running on a Wi-Fi connection, if you value your life savings).

In terms of software, the 4S comes with all kinds of major and minor improvements. The most immediately noticeable new feature is iCloud, Apple's new service that lets you back up and synchronize pretty much everything – contacts, music, photos, apps, whatever – among your various gadgets. Not only is it a great idea, and incredibly easy to use, it's also probably going to make the overall Apple ecosystem that much stronger, as customers begin to trust the company to store and transfer all their personal data.

Unfortunately for Research In Motion Ltd., the 4S also marks the debut of iMessage, an instant messaging service that seems purpose-built to steal users from BlackBerry Messenger. The premise is the same – chat with friends for almost no cost – and Apple has built the service into all kinds of media-sharing menus throughout the iPhone.

There are myriad other improvements hidden throughout the newest version of Apple's mobile operating system iOS5. There's a better message notification system. There's a greeting card-mailing app that's easy to use and almost completely pointless. Everything is just a little smoother, a little more refined.

And really, none of these improvements are what make the 4S fascinating. Apple has hidden something else in here, something that may one day be remembered as a milestone in the Star Trek-ization of consumer technology. It's a creepily intelligent voice recognition system and all-round digital butler called Siri.

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Basically, Siri is voice recognition software in people clothes. Hold down the home button for a couple of seconds, and it starts listening. Then you talk: "Who are you?"

"I'm Siri," the phone responds. "Here to help."

And from there on in begins one of the more ambitious feats of artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Google Android fans will complain that a lot of phones can recognize speech – in fact, there are some voice recognition tasks that Android phones can do better than Siri. But where Apple's new digi-assistant shines is in its ability to understand context: "Do I need an umbrella today?" you ask.

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.

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"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.

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