Siri, Apple’s New Old Personal Assistant App, Points Toward A Voice-Activated Future

I have seen the future, and it’s right here in my hands. While the rest of you poor suckers will have to wait until October 14 to try Siri on the new iPhone 4S, I’m looking at this magical, revolutionary technology right now. I’m using it to check the weather, book restaurant tables, set reminders, and send tweets—all with the power of my voice.

How did I pull off this stunning journalistic exclusive? By powering up my old iPhone. I’ve had the Siri app installed since the spring of 2010—before Apple even bought the SRI International spinoff for which the app is named.

What short memories most members of the tech media seem to have. After Apple’s event Tuesday introducing the iPhone 4S, a slew of stories hit the Web with headlines like “Apple Debuts Siri” and “Apple Reveals Siri Voice Interface.” The true part, as Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller explained on stage yesterday, is that Apple has taken the added step of baking Siri into its newest iPhone. Just hold down the iPhone 4S home button and you can ask Siri practical questions or assign it basic tasks. (Ask “Will I need an umbrella this weekend?” and it will come back with something like “It doesn’t look like rain is likely this weekend near San Francisco 94107.” Ask it “What’s the melting point of lead?” and it answers with a precise 327.46 degrees Celsius—with a little help from Wolfram Alpha).

But Siri isn’t actually new. It was introduced to the world as a third-party app for the iPhone 3G on February 5, 2010, and had a brief life as the flagship application for the startup of the same name, which won $24 million in funding from Menlo Ventures and Morgenthaler Ventures. Then Apple came into the story, snapping up the company in April 2010 for a reported $150 million to $250 million. The Siri inventors, who mostly hailed from SRI International, disappeared behind the Great Wall of Cupertino.

Apple stayed mum about Siri for the next 18 months—and there were some who feared that the app would go the way of Lala, the cloud music service that Apple bought in December 2009 and shuttered in May 2010. But Apple has long included voice-recognition features in its iOS devices as part of the accessibility options; moreover, it faces stiff competition from Google in the area of voice-driven personal assistant technology. So it was a no-brainer that the company would look for ways to integrate the Siri technology with other iPhone functions, such as e-mail, text-messaging, the music player, maps, reminders, and notifications. And that’s what the new Siri release is about. It’s like the iPhone is getting a new brain. (Watch the Apple video on page 2 of this article for a brief summary.)

While the Siri developers labored behind the scenes to meld the technology into the iPhone 4S, the original Siri app lived in on the iTunes App Store—until yesterday, anyway. It still works great, with some limitations. It’s as much about artificial intelligence—understanding ambiguity and making smart inferences—as it is about voice recognition. But it’s not a Star Trek-style talking encyclopedia—if you venture beyond practical queries relating to your daily activities, it will be at a loss. (When I asked Siri “Can dogs eat chocolate?” it gave me a list of nearby restaurants with “dog” in the title. Surprisingly, there are a dozen of them within a 10-mile radius of my home.)

People like me who’ve already got the app on their phones can keep using it until October 15, according to a notification shared inside the app. After that, the program will be available on the iPhone 4S only.

Why Apple isn’t implementing Siri across all iOS devices as part of the expected October 8 rollout of iOS 5 isn’t clear. Some observers are speculating that Siri is such a CPU hog that it can only run on the more powerful dual-core A5 processor built into the iPhone 4S. But Apple itself hasn’t said this explicitly, and the iPad 2 also has an A5 processor, so by this argument, Siri ought to run just fine on that device.

The more likely explanation is that Apple felt it needed to sex up the iPhone 4S—which isn’t all that different from the iPhone 4, if the truth be told—with some exclusive new features. I’m betting that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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