If Apple really has its Siri voice app down, we’re looking at a revolution in user interfaces. If it doesn’t, we’re looking at one more frustrating detour in the search for a computer that responds intelligently to voice commands.
Today, Apple announced its latest iPhone update, and the voice app was a highlight of the show. The app apparently has the software smarts to hear “Do I need a raincoat today?” and respond with “Looks like rain today.”
But, of course, it’s one thing to demonstrate an app before an adoring crowd, and quite another for it to work with your voice in a moving car. Apple’s voice recognition on the iPhone until now has been abysmal. Try getting it to consistently pick out your favorite songs or artist. It’s like using the “shuffle” function. Use Google’s voice search to find the phone number for your favorite restaurant or a movie, and you might just get lucky. But then again, you probably won’t, so pretty soon you’ll probably be pulling over to the side of the road.
Apple has been mining this particular fantasy since at least 1987, when former CEO John Scully posited the idea of “software agents” that could access massive databases for near-instant responses to user questions. Apple famously created “Knowledge Navigator” videos that showed a bow-tied “butler” who performed everyday tasks for a lucky professor.
Apple’s first attempt at that vision, the Newton, was a flop. It’s next attempt, the iPad, took well over a decade to materialize.
So has Apple nailed it this time with Siri?
If it has — and I define “nailed” as getting your requests right well over 90% of the time, just like good dictation software — then you will quickly see a revolution in the way people interact with their mobile phones. Even the fastest texter, after all, can’t text as quickly as they can talk; and no one presumably wants to be texting in a moving car. “Tell me what time 50/50 is playing in Culver City and where,” would be amazing stuff. It would very likely become a standard app on PCs, smart TVs and all kinds of other appliances in the next few years.
But if Siri only gets it right around 50 percent of the time or so, it will become one more novelty that quickly wears out its welcome. You should know the answer within 24 hours of getting your iPhone 4S.