Sorry Siri? Mixed reactions to the iPhone’s new voice interface

Siri is arguably the major selling point of the iPhone 4S. iCloud offers cloud computing, but promises nothing new beyond larger memory and music integration, at the cost of sharing with other users. It is Siri that Apple are pushing as the truly remarkable facet of the 4S’s spec. The voice recognition software was lauded at the product launch. Now that the handset in the shops, however, it’s time to evaluate initial reactions to this impressive-sounding piece of kit.

One of the major weaknesses the iPhone had versus Android was the lack of built-in voice commands. “Revolutionary”, “the future” and “trend-starter” are just some of the superlatives used by iFans to describe their initial reactions to Siri. A lack of integrated voice-recognition software was threatening to prise Apple devotees away from their iPhones, but Apple have turned the tables by providing not just an alternative to the likes of Google Voice Actions, but a significant advance. Initial tests suggest that Siri is more a Voice User Interface than a simple voice-to-text command system, with significantly more options and intuition.

Repeated attempts at difficult names apparently achieve success, and the AI starts to associate individual names with their most frequent users. If you know half-a-dozen Daves (as most people do), but only call one regularly, Siri will apparently deduce which Dave you’re shouting for. Siri has also been praised for being able to function efficiently despite background noise, although there have yet to be any detailed reports from clubbers as to its efficacy. All in all, Siri sounds great. So what are the drawbacks?

Well, Siri is being hailed by some as the future, with one Apple devotee even describing “Ask Siri” as the new “Google it”. However Google’s search engine success came from the fact that anyone with a computer could use it. Apple have taken the lead in the Voice Recognition Race, but their rivals are not out of sight. Siri was due to be available on Blackberry and Android, until Apple purchased the technology for its exclusive use. While such business manoeuvering is nothing new, you can be sure Google’s algorithm boffins will not be far behind.

Apple’s gain is also offset by the fact that the company has pulled the existing Siri app for older iPhone mobile phone deals. The app, which had gone some way to keeping Apple fans happy without genuine voice-interface software, has been withdrawn, with Siri now available only to 4S users. Cynical observers note that there is no technological reason why the iOS5 system, which runs on the iPhone 4 and 3GS, could not include the Siri engine. Is the reason purely financial? Are Apple saying, “If you want Siri, buy an iPhone 4S contract”? With Christmas approaching, it is a distinct possibility.

Other gripes have included Siri’s inability to recognise inflection, and poor responses to demo questions from salespeople. Then again, Siri’s AI will not necessarily have adapted to individual phone-sellers, so such criticism is basically castigating a dog for not learning a trick he’s never been taught. One concern, however, must be what shall be termed “The Dave Conundrum”. If Autocorrect is anything to go by, then soon it will be remarkably difficult to call any Dave other than your most frequently contacted one (your “Fave Dave”).

Of course, any such teething problems are neatly circumvented by the subtly incorporated status of Siri as a Beta program. Promoting a smartphone’s flagship feature in its Beta stage is quite remarkable – you wouldn’t see Ferrari market a car based largely on Sat-Nav that wasn’t guaranteed to get you home, and was likely to be bettered sometime in the next year. Whether Siri is revolutionary, cunning marketing or the next MobileMe failure will be revealed in the coming months. Right now, even Siri can’t answer that one.


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