June 12, 2012

Siri’s A Big Girl Now

Michael Harper for

Monday was more than a monumental keynote at Apple´s developers conference: It was also a coming out party for Siri.

It had been rumored, of course, that Siri would play a large part in Apple´s newest offerings. It was obvious from the beginning Apple was rather proud of their Intelligent Assistant baby. As soon as they saw her pop up in the App Store all those years ago (ok, 2 years ago) they knew they´d be able to give her a good home in Cupertino, California. Apple saw potential in her straight away and had to have her. She went through her awkward adolescent phase with as much grace as anyone else does in their Jr. High days, but now she´s ready to emerge fully blossomed, much smarter and ready to take on the world. And, as often happens in child-rearing, Apple has learned as much from Siri as Siri has learned from Apple. It´s a beautiful tale, and it was all unfurled for us on Monday as Scott Forstall explained all the ways Siri was ready to help.

Apple wasted no time showing off their baby girl, either, giving her opening credit duties.

(Before I move on, I must admit that, yes, I know Siri is only a piece of AI which is voiced by a woman in certain parts of the World. For the sake of the analogy, we´ll pretend as if the American version of Siri speaks for them all.)
Siri cracked some jokes at Google and Samsung´s expense, saying of Android´s sweet-toothed naming convention, “Who comes up with these names, Ben & Jerry?”

She then made the joke, “Honestly, I´m excited for the new Samsung“¦refrigerator! Hubba Hubba!”

Things haven´t always been so cheery in the Apple household...

The “teenage” years

Currently, when asked a question, Siri´s insistence on searching the web is the equivalent of a teenage girl responding with a shoulder shrug and a “dunno” when asked how her day went. Siri seemed willing to help, but only so much. When she does understand you, (she hardly understands me“¦and I was once a radio announcer in another life) she only does a few things well. Then, of course, there are the times when she is just completely unreachable, doing whatever it is adolescent girls do in their spare time.

She can send emails and texts, but will only read them aloud if you let her display them on the screen first. She will remind you to pick up milk the next time you´re at the store, but you also have to manually tell her where the store is“¦she isn´t yet wise enough to come to the conclusion of “Hey, so like I know you´re at a store, I don´t know if, like, this is the store you normally go to but, like you told me to remind you so, you know, I´m doing it.”

After all, if I´m told to get milk, I´ll take all the reminders I can get. Siri going the extra mile shouldn´t be seen as a nuisance. As it is, she´s only marginally helpful.

Thus, Apple´s insistence on referring to her as Beta.

It´s the most graceful way for them to shrug their shoulders and sigh in a way only parents can as if to say, “Kids“¦what are you gonna do?”

Siri and Apple have had their differences in the past. First, Siri angered some when she wouldn´t tell us where we could find an abortion. Making matters worse, she had no problem telling us where to find escorts or Viagra“¦

Then, Siri was found parroting a particularly naughty 4-letter word in Britain.

Finally, Siri became so ornery she began telling people in bars that another phone was better than Apple´s iPhone.

Movies, Sports and Traffic

But those days are in the past now. Apple´s finally had some words with their little girl, and it seems like some have stuck. She´s gone off to learn, to mature  and, as many do, discover herself.

Scott Forstall had the honors of announcing a new Siri to the world. Just as a proud father would, Scott started off by extolling the great things Siri can already do before launching into all the new tricks she´ll soon be able to do. In fact, Forstall sounded like a father who had been telling his buddies for months about how great his daughter has been doing in college. Now, she´s returned home, and Forstall wants to prove that he wasn´t making any undue exaggerations.

And just like a father would, Forstall couldn´t help himself, asking something about sports to begin with. Of course, boasting about Siri´s knowledge of sports was a bit of an odd choice. While no doubt useful, (I know I´ll use it everyday) the crowd full of typically sun-shy software developers couldn´t muster up much excitement. Still, I´ve tried before to ask Siri the score of last night´s Ranger game and was instead told she could perform a web search for “Siri, did the Texas Rangers win last night?”

Her new abilities to pop up the score in a beautifully designed score card–complete with box score–show her maturity. It looks as if Siri will be getting this sports information from Yahoo!, another slight diss to Google. It´s also likely Forstall´s team wanted to teach Siri all about sports to make her more appealing to Joe and Jane Q.

Everyman. After all, as the iPhone reaches more hands, Apple will need to make sure the mainstream crowd is appeased. What´s more mainstream and homegrown than being able to ask about your local sports team?
Not only is Siri a bit of a flirt, learning all about your favorite team, she´s also a romantic, willing to go out for dinner and a movie. This is a trick she was once able to do before Apple brought her into their family. Sure, you can ask her right now if there are any good Pho places nearby. She´ll even sort them by rating. In iOS 6, she´ll not only list the restaurants by Yelp rating, she´ll also display what kind of cuisine is sold at a particular restaurant and how much cash you´ll need to bring with you. Apple has partnered with Yelp on this one to deliver all of this information right within Siri´s window. Tapping on a restaurant will bring up all sorts of extra information about the eatery, as well as display some Yelp reviews.

Do you see a new restaurant you´d like to try? Siri will also call ahead and reserve a table for you. Apple has also partnered with OpenTable, (yet another skill she once had before Apple took her in) so tapping on the “book reservation” button inside Siri will open up the OpenTable app and book the table.

In the mood to see a Morgan Freeman flick? Just ask Siri what movies he currently stars in (he´s in everything“¦) and she´ll display them for you promptly. Apple has once again partnered with Rotten Tomatoes to display an average rating for movies. They´ve also integrated their own Apple Trailers, so viewing a preview of the movie is as easy as tapping a button, all right there within Siri.

This new, mature and robust Intelligent Assistant can also guide you as you make your way to the restaurant and theater.

As a part of Apple´s new Maps and traffic services, Siri also takes over on turn-by-turn duty, guiding you to your destination. The much discussed Maps app also gathers traffic information from every other iDevice on the road, an anonymously beautiful solution to maps and traffic. As such, if Siri notices an accident or other roadblock on your route, she´ll offer you a new way. Should you be running on fumes on your way to dinner, you can also ask Siri where the closest gas station on your route is. She knows, and she´ll take care of it. Apple has also been bragging on Siri to some of the World´s largest car manufacturers–such as Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Honda and Mercedes, to name a few–and will begin to roll out what they´re calling “eyes-free,” a mode which will let you call up Siri at the push of a steering-wheel button, rather than actually reaching down for the phone and holding the home button for a while. Of course, should you get restless, you can ask Siri “Are we there yet?”

She´ll calmly tell you how much time is left on your journey.

Siri on the iPad, comfortable staying at home

With all these improvements to their Intelligent Assistant, Apple saw it fit to give her a bit of a raise, allowing her to take control of new iPads as well as the newer models of iPhone. Now, those who want to take an evening in can ask Siri to post to their Facebook or Twitter (yes, now Facebook is as deeply integrated as Twitter in iOS) as well as launch a rousing game of Temple Run. She may or may not be able to take a bathroom mirror picture of you in your gym shorts“¦.Forstall didn´t mention it, understandably so.

After all, how vain is it to keep asking your assistant to take a picture of you?

She is also coming to many other parts of the world, such as Canada, Italy and Spain and has learned several new languages as well.

What have we learned here?

And just what did Apple learn from this entire experience? They certainly swung for the fences with Siri, placing her at the forefront of the ads for their latest iPhone offering. They asked every iPhone 4S user to put her to work, using her to plan their day, move around their calendar and remind them to do all those little tasks which often slip our minds. Perhaps they thought a little too big, however, as Siri was unavailable in the first weekend we got to play with her. I have to think, however, that Apple has been listening in on our conversations with Siri, learning from the things we asked her. For instance, did Apple decide to make a move into sports because so many of us are already asking her what last night´s score was? Have we been wanting to know who is playing in the latest summer blockbuster?

I know I have, on more than one occasion, asked where the closest gas station is. I´ve also asked where the closest taco stand is“¦a taco finder is noticeably absent from Siri´s list of features, but I´ll let it slide. In all this learning, Apple has been able to cater Siri to our needs and teach her all the things we want to use her for. Indeed Siri proved to be a little more intelligent than we thought, and hopefully Apple is as well. Calling Siri “beta” for so long was more of an admission of guilt than an admission of pride, and rolling her out as gradually as they have still proved to be a little more than their servers could handle. Now that she´s been out in the open all these months, hopefully they now know what it´s going to take to have a successful launch when they bring her out once more.

She´ll be here in the fall

Yes, Siri is finally able and ready to not only take on more tasks, but do them with a bit more grace and panache. She´s working well with others, such as OpenTable and other native apps, and she´s more willing than ever to listen and understand what you are asking of her. Hopefully by the time she arrives on our sparkly new iPhones and hopefully still-sparkly new iPads, she´ll be just a little embarrassed of her transgressions as a youth, but more importantly, ready to prove her worth to us once again. Yes, Siri is ready to move out of the house, stop hanging around the bars telling dirty jokes, and ready to get some real work done. We only have till this fall to find out. I think we can give her one last summer to get the last of her indiscretions out of her system.