Why Siri’s limited functionality works to its advantage – for now

Wed, Oct 19, 2011

Analysis, News

Siri, by all accounts, is the top feature Apple seems to be touting in the newly released iPhone 4S. Siri, some people claim, will bring AI to the masses and will, in fact, serve as a viable personal assistant for iPhone users.

Yesterday, I was discussing Siri with a friend who thus far found the feature somewhat underwhelming. More than anything, this friend found Siri’s inability to answer a wide array of questions frustrating. In short, he found Siri limited and not that different from other voice recognition services he had used in the past.

And to a certain extent, I had to agree. I gave Siri a few test runs myself and found mixed results. After getting past some of the more basic questions – i.e What time is it in Australia? – I asked it a few questions that might typically come up in an ordinary course of conversation.

First I asked, “How old is Larry Bird?” After a few seconds it came back with the right answer.

So far so good.

Next I asked, “Who directed The Rock?” Again, a few seconds it came back with the right answer – Michael Bay.

It was time to up the ante so I then asked, “Who was the main star in Back to the Future?” And to that, it had no answer.

The short of it is that Siri is, in many ways, a limited feature. But because the types questions users can ask Siri are limited to a small subset, Siri is able to accomplish the tasks it’s capable of carrying out remarkably well.

To that end, Jeff Wofford writes that it’s precisely Siri’s modest ambition that makes the feature so valuable.

In a nutshell, here’s what it’s capable of:

  • Interact with the calendar.
  • Search contacts.
  • Read and write messages (text and email).
  • Interact with the Maps app and location services.
  • Forward search phrases to certain pre-defined data providers (Yahoo! Weather, Yahoo! Finance, Yelp, Wolfram|Alpha, or Wikipedia).
  • This is still an impressive and—most importantly—wildly useful set of functions. But it is a limited, focused set. And that’s what makes me think Siri’s “AI” may actually work.

Right now, most of the reports regarding Siri center on the quirky and funny messages it delivers in response to offbeat questions and commands like “Talk dirty to me” – to which Siri responds with a message about needing to clean.

Over the next few weeks we’ll have a better grasp on the utility of Siri and if it’s positioned to be more than just a novelty feature that makes for a cool demo but not something one might use during the ordinary course of a day.

With that in mind, Siri is still in Beta and will inevitably become “smarter” as Apple is able to build up a database of common questions and requests and tailor the software accordingly, much like how Google has done so brilliantly with its search engine.

So while Siri’s functionality may be somewhat limited for now, that may ultimately prove to be an integral part of its future success.

A reliable, albeit limited, Siri is a feature users are comfortable with, and more importantly, one they can trust.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Craig Says:

    I was disappointed that the iPad doesn’t feature Siri. I had the original version in my App software catalogue. Of course it no longer functions.

  2. Jason Anderson Says:

    I hope it gets unlocked on all capable iOS5 devices in time. It’s already been proven that it’s not actually using the processing capabilities of the 4S. It’s all done on a server. There’s no technical reason it can’t work. They just didn’t want to give away what they’re hoping will be the big feature to set the 4S apart. I hope in time they do unlock it in an iOS5 software update or at least iOS6. Of course I’m also still holding out hope that the iPad eventually gets official Weather, Stocks and Clock apps. So who knows.

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