Siri on the Mac — a few thoughts

Tech Life

According to 9to5Mac, Siri will come with the next version of Mac OS X. Many have reacted to this bit of news with relief (“At long last”, “Finally”, etc.), while my reaction was much more lukewarm. I personally don’t have much use for Siri (I’ve previously talked about my frustrations with it), but I don’t doubt its usefulness for many other people.

Siri is the typical feature you either embrace fully or don’t much care about. It either fits in your workflow and device interaction, or it doesn’t. But while I understand how Siri could be helpful as an assistant and as a ‘shortcut’ when you’re handling an iPhone or iPad, on the Mac this potential helpfulness is harder for me to fathom, at least outside the Accessibility sphere.

When I expressed my scepticism on social media — “Many are saying Finally! to Siri coming with the next version of OS X. I really wonder what they’ve been dying to do with it.” — the few responses I got were essentially about being able to perform Spotlight searches, to use Siri as an app launcher, to set reminders, and a way to trigger music playback without having to deal with iTunes.

Here’s how I approach such tasks:

  • Spotlight search — I’m faster with the keyboard for most of my searches.
  • App launching — I use the Dock as Steve wanted. I just keep there all the apps I use most frequently. And for launching the occasional app that’s not in the Dock, I invoke Spotlight and type the first few letters of the app’s name.
  • Setting Reminders — I don’t use reminders at all. But if I did, I’d find more natural to use Siri on my iPhone, which is always close, than on my Mac.
  • Music playback — I don’t mind interacting with iTunes, but I also use Vox and Spotlight. However, personal preferences apart, how would one interact with an interface-less music player? By always triggering Siri? Pause, Stop, Next song, Now play the David Bowie collection, Shuffle this album… A bit awkward and tiring, no? And if there were a minimal interface on screen, where would it be? In the menubar? Hovering over other windows? I’m really curious to see how this will be implemented.

Of all devices, the Mac is the most stationary, which allows for the most comfortable and fastest operation on the user’s part. While I ‘get’ using Siri to perform hands-free tasks in mobile situations when you have your iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch with you to talk to, I can’t imagine something like this happening while you’re in front of your Mac. But maybe I just lack imagination at the moment. Again, I’m focussing on users with no disabilities — of course Siri on the Mac would be awesome for people with motor impairments, sight issues, etc.

For example (since a few people brought this up), let’s take dictating stuff to Siri. If you’re out and about and need to send a message, a brief email reply, or set a reminder for yourself, it’s quite convenient to invoke Siri on your iPhone or Apple Watch, and ask Siri to help you with such tasks. You may have your hands occupied, or be engaged in another activity, or find yourself in a situation where taking out the iPhone to type the message yourself would be awkward or uncomfortable.

With a Mac, such scenarios are unlikely to happen, I think. And even considering a rather extreme case — someone using an Android phone and carrying around a MacBook — the laptop would likely be closed, sleeping, so in order to talk to Siri one would have to open the MacBook. At that point, it’d be just easier to carry out the task yourself. Siri might be ‘always on’ on the Mac, and at home the Hey Siri feature[1] might even be able to wake a desktop Mac from sleep, but how about a Mac laptop with a closed lid?

But whatever the use cases and the level of potential comfort Siri could bring to the Mac, the thing that concerns me when talking about Siri is always the same: reliability. Because I believe it would be immensely cool to perform complex Spotlight searches, maybe even while you’re working on something else, such as:

– Siri, search for all the documents mentioning ‘handwriting recognition’ modified in the last week, and open them in TextWrangler.

Or you’re preparing invoices and:

– Siri, open Mail and search for all messages from John Doe sent between Monday and Tuesday mentioning the translation assignment.

If Siri interpreted such commands 100% correctly, I would be using it all the time. That would really mean having a digital assistant à la Knowledge Navigator [video]. Now imagine the same two aforementioned examples, and Siri reacting with a response that has become all too familiar for me when I interact with it on my iPhone:

— Rick, I’m not sure I understand what you mean.


– Here’s what I found on John Doe on the Web [opens a panel with a Wikipedia page]

That would instantly transform a potentially time-saving feature in a terribly time-wasting one. To be useful on a Mac, more than on any other device, Siri has really to be quicker, accurate and more convenient than the user doing the same thing with the keyboard or mouse or trackpad.

Of course, these are just a few initial thoughts on the matter. I’ve read that Apple has been testing Siri on the Mac internally since 2012, so I bet that if Apple judges this feature to be mature, it will be implemented with a few smart tricks and won’t be just a half-finished gimmick. For now, though, I’ll just conclude by boringly remarking that Apple should prioritise the reliability of their existing software and services instead of adding another potential source of frustration for the user.


  • 1. Speaking of Hey Siri, I wonder what happens when you have it enabled on your iPhone, iPad and Mac, you’re sitting at your Mac with the other devices close by, and you invoke it. Would you need to start fiddling with Siri settings and remember to turn it off on the iPhone when you’re at your Mac, then turn it back on on the iPhone when you head out, and so on and so forth? ↩︎


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