With Siri Interface, Apple’s New iPhone Changes Mobile As We Know It

The voice recognition engine inside the iPhone 4S isn’t an “app,” it’s a whole new interface called Siri. Here’s how it works, and why it could bury the competition.



As expected and announced on Tuesday, the newest iPhone boasts updated iOS software, a better and faster camera, a more powerful processor and gaming capabilities, even an antenna that reportedly competes with 4G. Those are all great, if incremental, upgrades. What will really tempt you to break contract or pay up to $650 for a phone that looks the same as the last one is iPhone’s new “personal assistant,” Siri.

You might have seen Siri before, back when it was a standalone, speech-recognition app with some surprising chops. Apple bought Siri, pulled it behind its Cupertino cloak, and today revealed it as the heart of a new iPhone interface that aims to provide a completely frictionless user experience: you tell your phone to do something, and the phone does it.

That’s a lofty goal, promised many times over by consumer web and electronics players. But not like Apple is promising. Siri, if it works as well as it did during yesterday’s demonstration, and if users can really use it like Apple suggests, will change a lot about how you think of the device you still call a “phone.” It’s becoming the device that has answers for you–from the web, from your own data, and from things that people literally just sent you. 

What Siri Can Do

Phil Schiller
, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, said Siri was the best feature of the iPhone 4S. “What we really want to do,” Schiler said, “is just talk to our device, and we want to talk to it any way we’d like.” That’s what Siri does.


You don’t have to shout “Wea-ther 1-0-0-2-1,” at Siri to decide on your clothes for the day. You can ask “Do I need a raincoat?,” and Siri responds with something like: “It looks like rain today.” But you could have also asked: “Will it rain in Manhattan,” or “Is the weather going to get worse this afternoon,” or “What’s the weather like today,” or commanded your phone to “Find out the weather,” and Siri would respond with the same information in slightly different contexts. That would be a neat trick in itself, with just the weather, international time, and other examples–answers for which Google can also provide an instant answer.

But Siri is also connected to a few key web services, knows where you are, and can take over for the core services you previously had to type (on a sometimes fussy touchscreen) to operate on your phone. Siri connects through review site Yelp, restaurant reservation service OpenTable, the “answer engine” WolframAlpha, Wikipedia, and presumably a few other sites. Combined with the iPhone’s rich location services, that allows for voice commands and questions like “Find the best vintage clothing store around here,” and “What was Apple’s net revenue in 2010,” or “Book a table for four at East End Kitchen for 7 tonight.”

The seemingly mundane, day-to-day speech function of Siri, however, is even more exciting. “Tell Noah I’m late with my invoice,” should send a nicely worded message to a frequently texted, or e-mailed boss, for example. “Remind me to pick up bread when I leave the office,” should create a reminder (image, above) and then buzz you when your phone detects you’re leaving work. “Wake me up at 1 p.m.” should set the alarm that keeps your nap in check. Directions, stock quotes, even “How many days until Christmas?”– check, check, check.

But the most succinct demonstration came during Tuesday’s announcement, when senior VP of iPhone software Scott Forstall did a four-step vocal dance with an iPhone 4S (paraphrased here):

  • Forstall told Siri to “Read my messages,” and the phone read back an SMS (from Phil Schiller) that asked if he wanted to do lunch on Friday.
  • Forstall asked Siri if he had any appointments Friday at noon, and Siri brought up the calendar and said something like “Your schedule looks empty Friday at noon.”
  • Forstall asked Siri to text back to Schiller that “I can do Friday…”
  • Forstall says “Schedule a lunch Friday at noon with Phil Schiller,” and Siri responds in the affirmative to these commands.

Almost as an afterthought, Apple also noted that Siri will take straight voice dictation. That means anywhere you’d see a keyboard pop up to fill in text, you could instead hit a microphone button and say your text out loud. Convenient, but not as eye-wideningly contextual.


How Google, Android, and Dragon Match Up

Siri’s most direct competition is Google’s Voice Actions, which debuted a little over a year ago. Like the iPhone’s Siri, Voice Actions grants users voice access to operate the phone’s core functions– “Directions to Adam’s Mark, Kansas City” or “Send text to Richard–When can we meet up?” should both work, there. They cover what looks like half of the functions Apple demonstrated with Siri on Tuesday; it can’t be too long before Google adds more power to their voice recognition engine–possibly in the next Android release, expected by the end of November.

Google’s voice search and actions can be “startlingly good,” as Dan Nosowitz noted back in 2010, and Google has since added a feature to store a user’s voice samples for better recognition. Universal speech-to-text input has been in Android for some time, with Google encouraging users to speak normally and smoothly (among other voice recognition tips). But theirs is more of a system that a user learns to get better access to certain phone features, rather than an alternative interface for the phone itself.

Many expected Apple to integrate the popular Dragon Dictation mobile apps into their system as a simple speech-to-text alternative for emails, SMS, and sending Twitter messages. Google has been making itself a ubiquitous app on many Apple devices with its own voice search. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said in closing Tuesday’s event, “Only Apple can make such powerful hardware and services like this and bring them together.” Translation: Only Apple has access to the deep phone data and apps that make Siri so appealing.

If Siri works as well as it did on a spotlit stage yesterday, in a presumably rehearsed scene, it could do even more to make iPhone owners reliant on and loving of their smartphone of choice. Voice “apps” have alternatives and quirks, but a deeply integrated presence that you actually get familiar with is something else entirely.


Caveats: Social Nomrs And Precision Frustration

Not everybody sees Siri as a game-changing technology. The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal made a reasonable counter point: “It seems cool, but I feel like I thought Dragon Dictate was cool before I tried it, too.”

There’s the rub: Siri will only be really helpful to an iPhone owner if they actually want to talk to their phone instead of type, let alone feel comfortable doing so. You’ll still be typing when you walk down the street, when you’re in an office, and pretty much anywhere you might not want to say out loud, “Text my wife, ‘Tofu enchiladas or brick oven pizza for dinner?'” John Herrman of Popular Mechanics nails it: “In public it’s rude. In private it’s creepy.”

It only takes a few embarassing misses, mangled appointments, or a few friends with non-Siri-friendly last names to dispel the magic of your personal assistant.

Then again, you might have rolled your eyes ten years ago at the gimmick of a computer controlled by touching a glass pane. Or wondered how a phone would benefit from knowing your location all the time.