(Nota Bene: There is no Part 2. Hours after publishing this article, I learnt about Steve Jobs’s passing, and I didn’t feel like writing the rest of my notes on the iPhone 4S.)
Usually, after an important Apple event where new hardware or software is introduced, I would wait a few days before publishing my observations. I’d read other people’s commentary, I’d gather information, take notes and then post a long article expounding my thoughts and impressions. I’m thinking about changing that habit, by publishing shorter pieces, each one focussing on a particular aspect of the matter. This way people won’t be burdened with long articles which are more difficult to follow and less likely to inspire feedback.
Siri: “I am your humble personal assistant”
Since Apple didn’t provide a live stream of yesterday’s event, like everyone else I was following a few live blogs to keep up with the news (kudos to gdgt, whose live coverage was by far the most reliable). When Siri was first introduced and its capabilities explained, I was impressed, but then I quipped something along the lines of Jesus, now people we’ll be even more ridiculous, talking to their gadget on the street, trying to make themselves understood by the AI of the phone. I was in an IRC chat with some friends when I expressed this reaction, and a couple of them promptly pointed out that yes, it might be ridiculous doing that standing in the street, but less so while you’re driving (or doing other tasks that prevent you from using the iPhone with one or both hands).
It’s true, and as usual, Apple creates informational videos which help you realise some uses or possibilities you may have overlooked. Apple’s video about how Siri works is no exception. In the video we see that you may resort to Siri: while you’re jogging/running, while you’re in the car, while you’re packing, while you’re cooking. Most importantly, as we see in the last use case, blind people can take advantage of Siri in combination with VoiceOver as an amazingly helpful accessibility feature.
So here’s what I’m thinking: as Siri improves and people start taking advantage of this kind of ‘hands-free interaction’ for basic tasks, isn’t it a path that could lead to a relationship between owner and device that’s tighter on one side, but more… er, discreetly efficient on the other? Yes, I know, giving voice commands to your phone will probably make you look stupid on occasions, yet you don’t necessarily have to hold the iPhone in your hand and talking to it like you were using a walkie-talkie. As the video shows, you can simply use the earphones and keep the device in your pocket.
Siri could help bring focus back. Picture the difference between having to text someone while you’re walking at a fast pace (because you’re late or you just have to give an urgent reply to a text you just received and you’re running to catch the bus, a taxi, a train) and simply telling Siri Send a message to Emily and tell her I’ll call her back ASAP. In the first case you’re forced to text while walking or just to stop and write the message. This slows you down, makes you lose time, attention and sometimes even awareness of your surroundings. (I’m sure you’ve all seen that woman who fell into a fountain while texting and walking.) With phones with a virtual keyboard it’s worse because you don’t have tactile feedback and you have to look at the phone when you’re texting. Being unaware of your surroundings, even for a few moments, could be dangerous. With Siri, you just activate the microphone and talk to it without having to slow down, or stop or otherwise divert your attention. Like when you talk while driving: you (usually) manage to do both things just fine, and it’s surely safer than texting while driving.
This way, you get to rely more on this technology, but in return you’ll have a device that’s less in your way. And less in the way of the people you’re with at a given moment: you can give them more of your attention instead of incessantly fidgeting with your iPhone.
A modern Knowledge Navigator?
Some have said that Apple has managed to start turning into reality a concept described by former CEO John Sculley in 1987, the Knowledge Navigator [Wikipedia entry | Concept videos (on YouTube) — here’s the first from that search results page]. The key word is ‘start’. As you can see in the concept videos, the kind of artificial intelligence of the Knowledge Navigator is more sophisticated, and allows for a more refined, subtle interaction. The Knowledge Navigator has an incredibly high level of understanding of his ‘master’; theirs is almost like a normal conversation between two people. What we see with Siri is basic challenge-response behaviour. It’s all still at a rudimentary stage, but it’s fascinating to think about the possibilities down this road. Those who dismiss Siri as a simple gimmick on Apple’s part can’t see innovation even if it hit them right in the face.