What Siri Really SHOULD Be – Part I

Siri leaves a lot to be desired. Here are my thoughts on what Apple’s introduction to AI really should be.

I recently read an article at a major, pro-Apple website that said that if Steve Jobs were still alive, he’d absolutely hate Siri (as currently implemented). Given what the general public knows about Steve, I’d have to agree. While CLEARLY labeled a beta effort, Siri leaves a bit – ok… a great deal – to be desired. With Apple’s WWDC event coming up, and the opening keynote, presumably given by Tim Cook, I think its important to expect some major developments related to Siri as a precursor to the introduction of Apple’s 6th generation iPhone, currently expected in October 2012. I’ve got a couple of ideas on what needs to happen to Siri, and what the digital AI/assistant really should do. Let’s take a quick look in this multipart series…

Beta-Be-Gone

The iPhone is revolutionary. The iPad is a magical device. The iPod/iPod Touch completely transformed and modernized the music industry (even if it did go kicking and screaming into “that good night”). Apple has done some extraordinary things with its products over the years, and I haven’t even come close to listing them all.

The beta label currently attached to Siri, Apple’s artificial intelligence powered digital assistant currently ONLY available on the iPhone 4S, needs to go.

And it needs to go YESTERDAY.

What does this mean? Simple – Apple needs to stop whatever its doing as far as iOS development is concerned and ring the all hands bell and rally the resources around Siri and finish the damn thing.

Siri has some major bugs and some major holes that need to be plugged and the biggest is that it needs to become, at the very least, a 1.0 released product ASAP. This means that its recognition engine needs to come out of the garage and join the rest of the iPhone in the spotlight – meaning it needs to be finished and improved…for all supported languages.

I’d like to be able to be John Malkovich, and have a one word conversation with Siri through my iPhone 4S; but its not currently possible. I don’t have any kind of speech impediments; and I’ve lived in the Midwest US most of my life, meaning I don’t natively have any accent to my English as a first language, voice. Siri should understand just about everything that I say; and she doesn’t.

I make simple requests now and again – what’s the weather like, will it be chilly the rest of the week, remind me to pick upat the grocery store when I leave the train station, or something as simple as, Siri, call myetc.

I often get, “I’m sorry, Christopher. I didn’t quite get that,” or, “I’m sorry; but I can’t do that right now.” This morning when I asked if it would be chilly the rest of the week, Siri responded, “Ok Christopher, which Beth would like like to call?” and then presented a list of 5 people named, Beth or Elizabeth out of my contact list. I checked. It correctly grabbed and displayed the right question, “will it be chilly the rest of the week?” I looked more than once to confirm it; but instead Siri asked me which Beth I wanted to call.

What?! Really? REALLY?

If its not something totally off the wall like that, the Siri simply doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Blurring the words, “wife” and “life” is sort of understandable. I often get “What do I call my life?” instead of “Siri call my wife,” or something similar. Its really ridiculous. I don’t have anything in my mouth when I talk, and as I mentioned, I don’t have any kind of speech impediments or thick accents that would make my speech difficult to understand, and yet Siri and I don’t seem to see eye to eye on a number of things.

These basic comprehension and speech recognition issues have to be resolved immediately, or else the device is never going to be able to make reliable use of the digital assistant at all. If Siri has trouble understanding even the most basic of questions or commands in the car, in a room with moderate to low volume or even in a quiet room (I’ve encountered my problems with Siri in all of these locations), then Apple may as well hang it up and kill the feature.

Its getting a bit silly, really. This is the feature’s basic functionality and I can’t rely on it for anything at this point.

Support for Bluetooth and other External Microphones

As I mentioned in part 1 of this multipart series, Siri has some serious comprehension and recognition issues that need to be resolved in order to break it out of its beta label and become a full-blown 1.0 feature.

As either part of that effort or in a separate update, Siri needs to really support use through a wireless headset and other external microphones. Right now, while use via a wireless mic is possible, the recognition and comprehension issues that Siri has when used with a wireless headset really prohibit that interaction.

This is a huge problem, as I know many people that use an iPhone often do so with a wireless set of headphones or a wireless headset (or both in a single unit). They may also use Apple’s included set of wired ear buds. Siri’s recognition quality through all of these leaves a bit to be desired.

The Bluetooth and wireless microphone issues with Siri are mostly well documented and widely reported. The entire tech journalist world has been ripping clothes, wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over Siri’s inability to understand most anything when used in conjunction with any other microphone other than the hardwired mic in the iPhone itself. Recognition quality through Apple’s own wired headset isn’t completely horrible, but isn’t as accurate as it is via iPhone’s built in microphone.

Most of the people that I know use their iPhone with a wireless headset. Let’s face it – Apple’s wired headset is ok, but the wires constantly get hung up on something and one of the first purchases most everyone with an iPhone makes, is a wireless headset or hands free kit for the car.

Bluntly put, if Siri can’t accurately, reliably, consistently work through a headset, then the feature is never going to get used while a user is on the go, defeating the need for it – nearly – all together.

I recently saw the two new John Malkovich iPhone 4S commercials and decided to give Siri another go. As I mentioned in part one of this series, it was a waste of my time. Siri muffed the job entirely, despite understanding what I had said.

Removing a headset or wireless mic from the picture to help improve recognition reliability and accuracy isn’t realistic either. I’m not going to turn a headset off, wait for the iPhone to realize that it’s no longer paired with the headset and ask Siri my question and then turn it back on and repair my headset, just to give Siri the best chance to do her job right. THAT’S totally unrealistic and totally silly. I think I can actually HEAR Steve rolling over in his grave as I mention that. (No disrespect intended; but THAT would totally drive him nuts, based on what I learned about him while reading his biography from cover to cover.)

So, in order to get Siri correctly implemented as a usable feature, Apple needs to do two really big things:

  • Improve Siri’s general reliability, accuracy and comprehension (no small task)
  • Have all that work regardless of whether I’m speaking to her through the iPhone’s built in microphone, Apple’s included, wired headset, or a Bluetooth headset or hands free car kit.

Get that done, and done well, and I’d call that Siri 1.0.

Come back next time, and I’ll go into what features Siri should really provide once the bugs are ironed out.

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iPad 3 Rumors & Thoughts – Part 2: iOS 6

With Steve Jobs gone and his legacy not completely publically known or understood, the iPad 3 is almost a complete unknown as well. Let’s take a look at some of the rumors and see what’s what.

I’ve been reading the authorized Steve Jobs biography, and quite honestly, I’ve been learning a great deal. Apple very much *IS* Steve Jobs, and vice-versa. It’s been an interesting read. Much of the design and thoughts for the iPad itself came before the iPhone. It was put on hold to address and release the need for the iPhone. However, the magic that is the iPhone will forever be beholden to the iPad. This was probably one of the most interesting revelations I’ve encountered in the book so far. But the iPad… that was Steve’s baby. He really wanted to do a tablet to counter the netbook surge and push, which is pretty much OVER at this point.

Apple has the tablet market pretty much sewn up. At this point, Android can try all it wants, but without the walled garden that Apple has cultivated and nurtured, it’s going to be hard for Google, any of their hardware partners, or ANYONE really, to catch up to them any time soon.

So, with all that, let’s take a quick gander at what is likely to come to iPad and iPhone fans alike with the next major release of iOS.

Siri Matures
I’ve been using my iPhone 4S for a couple of months, and I really like Siri; though at times, I think she thinks I have a speech impediment. I keep on asking her, “what’s my day like;” and she keeps telling me that she doesn’t understand, “what’s my daylight.” Awesome. Love that. I’ve also noticed that Siri on EDGE isn’t as accurate as Siri on 3G/4G (HSPA+); but that’s another matter entirely.

With the next MAJOR release of iOS, meaning iOS 6, we’re going to see a major bump in Siri’s maturity level. You’re going to be able to ask her to do a lot more and she’s going to be more integrated in how the device works. While she won’t be a complete consumer AI, she’s going to be the closest thing that John Q. Public will likely see for a while

Siri’s biggest problem, however, is not what she can’t do, or even that she may not listen very well. It’s that people don’t really know all of what she can and cannot do. My biggest problem with Siri is that I really don’t know what she’s capable of; and depending on what kind of cellular coverage you may have, if your inside or outside the Wi-Fi zone or perhaps having a bad hair day, Siri’s success in understanding what you want/need/mean when you speak may vary.

Apple needs to improve her listening skills and needs to insure that the local device does as much of the heavy lifting as it can. Voice recognition shouldn’t depend on your network connection speed. For example, when I ask Siri to call so and so, Siri seems to do a lot of thinking on my end. I know I have 1600+ contacts, but the response back from her should be almost instantaneous if I have so and so in my Contact List.

Support for Siri over LTE is also pretty much a no-brainer, given the inclusion of the mobile technology at a hardware level.

Improved Google Maps and Navigation Integration
There are two issues here – an improved Google Maps (just called Maps in iOS, but it’s the same thing) and integration with a navigation app. Its separate for a couple of reasons.

  • Google Maps for iOS is a mapping only app. There have been improvements made to Maps over the past few full revisions of iOS, but it’s not done anything more than provide map information and directions from A to B since its introduction.
  • Google has kept turn-by-turn navigation in Google Maps for its own Android OS.

In the next major version of iOS, Apple needs to give you support for the following use case:

  • 1. User – Siri, where’s the nearest ?
  • 2. Siri – I have found the following near your location.
  • 3. Siri – Would you like to navigate/go to any of them.
  • 4. User – Yes
  • 5. Siri – Which ?
  • 6. User –
  • 7. Siri – Would you like to walk or drive there from your current location? (if walking is a reasonable option)
  • 8. User –
  • 9. Siri – Which navigation application would you like to use? You have the following navigation applications installed.

or,

  • You don’t have any navigation applications installed. Would you like to search for and purchase one from the App Store?

or,

  • You don’t have any navigation applications installed. Would you like to me to generate directions with Maps?
  • 10. User – Makes appropriate choice
  • 11. Siri – Provides directions or launches purchased navigation app, passing the appropriate origin and destination variables to the app.

This will require modification on the part of the navigation app so it can accept these variables from Siri, but that should be doable, especially if Apple provides the appropriate API’s. Apple also needs to grow Siri so that she can control hardware iPhone components (volume, screen brightness, Bluetooth radio (Siri, turn on Bluetooth and pair/connect with/to.)

At the end of the day, though, you can see that Apple needs to do something with the current version of Maps, because it’s just not cutting it. Maps is nice, but giving me directions and not turn by turn navigation is not what users want. Apple doesn’t control the version of Maps in iOS, and while they can augment it some with Siri, and perhaps provide an API so other navigation apps can fit in, there are rumors that a recent acquisition may be a more likely result than an API for other navigation apps or than expecting Google to bring its Navigation to the party.

Come back next time, and I’ll dive into when and how the iPad 3 will be released.

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