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

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Apple has had this strategy of saving Siri for the iPhone 4S in mind all along, explaining why Siri was MIA at Apple’s June press event, when some analysts had expected it would be announced as part of iOS 5.

The iPhone 4 is a darn good phone—perhaps too good. Sixteen months in, it’s a much better value than the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G were at the same point in their own life cycles. Speaking for myself, I can’t see upgrading to the 4S just to get Siri, or the A5 processor, or the new 8-megapixel camera. But Apple always rolls things out in stages, and it’s as predictable as foggy mornings in San Francisco that voice-driven personal assistant technology will eventually show up in every Apple device that has a microphone.

The real question is how fast Apple will move in this direction, and whether it will eventually give third-party developers access to Siri’s capabilities through new application programming interfaces, like those developers use to access other basic phone functions. Gary Morgenthaler, a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures in Menlo Park, CA, and a former board member at both Siri and Nuance, argued in these pages in June that Apple should throw open the gates, the better to encourage innovation:

Apple can either integrate Nuance and Siri a little—or a lot. I say, go big, Don’t use the incredible power of these two best-in-class technologies to manage Apple-only applications. Sure, it would be fun to say, “Open iTunes. Play Born this Way by Lady Gaga,” instead of typing it out. But it would be far more transformative to open up the API to allow all of Apple’s 100,000-plus registered developers to dream up ways to use voice recognition and natural language AI in their own third-party apps.

That’s not what Apple is doing, at least not yet. And that’s understandable: the company probably wants to get consumers into the habit of using voice and natural language for basic tasks before it lets developers go wild. You can be sure, however, that by the time the real iPhone 5 or “iOS 5.5” roll around—meaning, I’d guess, late 2012—there will be a whole new generation of voice-activated apps vying for our attention.

Imagine, for example, being able to call up a movie in the Netflix app by name, then play or pause the film with a few spoken commands. Or dictating a diary entry into Evernote. Or baking a souffle as your iPad reads you the instructions aloud and answers questions when you get stuck. The possibilities inherent in Siri are enormous—and if Apple doesn’t let iOS developers explore them soon, it will cede this area of innovation to Google and the Android community.

Here’s an Apple video demonstrating Siri’s capabilities as part of the iPhone 4S.

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

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