Apple gets Siri-ous with new iPhone

Date Published: 
November 11, 2011

Last month, the world lost a man who may someday be considered one of the most influential people of our generation, at least in terms of how we, as individuals, interact with the world. Steve Jobs’ death was not unexpected, though it came surprisingly suddenly for those who were not in his inner circle – just more than a month after he stepped down as the CEO of Apple Inc. But his lasting legacy is likely to be the drive for consumer-friendly interfaces with technology that he used to cram so much innovation into his 56 short years.

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To say that Jobs’ long-term impact on humanity is likely to be seen as significant may seem like overstating the matter. After all, he did just lead a company that makes home computers and entertainment gadgets, right?

But while the clean, refined design aesthetic he championed – itself created, for the most part, by Apple design guru Jonathan Ive – could either be the harbinger of our future or a fad that will pass as quickly as tastes for neo-classical shift to rococo, Jobs’ intense focus on the user experience is a legacy that might someday be credited with having changed the path of humanity.

The final product whose release he saw – the day before his death, in fact – was the new iPhone 4S. Sadly, the new iPhone received mixed reviews at its launch. With fans hyped up by unfounded rumors of an impending release of iPhone 5 with a radical design change to a tear-drop shape and perhaps a larger screen and/or 4G data speeds, the actual 4S had little chance of wowing anyone who was closely following Apple’s plans. (In fact, the iPhone 5 may have all of those features. But it isn’t likely to be released until 2012.)

The rumors of a “free on contract” or “cheap” iPhone were true, though not in a way most expected. The existing iPhone 4 continues on as an entry-level option for those willing to spend $100 or more and sign up for a two-year contract with AT&T or Verizon. That’s in contrast with the iPhone 4S, which ranges between $200 and $400 on contract for storage sizes between 16 and 64 GB but is now also available to Sprint customers.

The previous-generation iPhone 3GS is now free, with a two-year contract on AT&T – the only carrier that offered that model – putting it in reach of anyone who’s willing to pay the monthly costs of a smartphone voice and iPhone data plan, starting around $55 per month.

That shift in pricing, while not the marvel that a new iPhone is generally considered, is something that is likely to put the nearly-ubiquitous iPhone in the hands of even more consumers, including those who previously considered a smartphone too much bang for their buck.

And they’d be wise to give it a try, for one simple reason: the iPhone’s touchscreen interface, and its massive collection of available applications, makes it easy for the average person to use, and understand, what previously had been a smartphone market in which only the tech-savvy really made thorough use of such a high-end device – a device that is, for all intents and purposes, now a mobile, wireless mini-computer.

As one of those tech-savvy folks – but one who rebelled at the notion of Apple’s “walled garden,” and at a lack of removable storage, removable battery and physical keyboard, I was a reluctant convert. I had come to view my iPod Touch as a “gateway drug” into the world of Apple’s application offerings, but I had declared the iPhone 3G “not ready for prime-time,” due to what it lacked that I already had in my Windows Mobile smartphone.

It wasn’t until the iPhone 3GS was released in 2008 that I saw just enough of a step forward that I could finally make the switch.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. It still lacked both removable memory (or, really, even enough built-in memory for my typical uses) and a removable battery. It was still locked down in Apple’s “walled garden,” though with some effort, the tech-savvy could insert a gate into that wall for some unauthorized customizations (which I gleefully did shortly after I bought the thing).

My response to the 3GS’s built-in camera was best described as “meh” – suitable for a token snapshot when you didn’t have a real camera on you. Its voice-control function was likewise unimpressive – not even as sophisticated as the pretty decent Microsoft offering for years’ old Windows Mobile phones, to the point where most iPhone owners I knew never used it.

But it had a camera, and it had all those apps, and I was no longer carrying two devices all the time. It worked well enough for me.

Closer, but not quite perfect

What would have made me go ga-ga for an iPhone, instead of the grudging enthusiasm I offered back in early 2009? For starters, at least 64 GB of onboard memory, since removable memory looks to be verboten for Apple’s phones. My music collection alone measured in at about 20 GB at that point and has only grown since. Not having all my music on me leaves a bad taste in my mouth. You never know what you’re going to want to listen to. The iPhone’s 32GB maximum memory capacity was just not enough for comfort.

The same held true for apps. A voracious collector of things that might prove to be useful at some point, I quickly filled (and overfilled) my phone with hundreds of them. There was no room left for a single piece of video, let alone a movie, though I did have movies and TV shows I’d purchased through Apple’s iTunes store and had stored on the iPod Touch my son now used.

A better camera was certainly in order. I’d selected a small but powerful point-and-shoot for my work and photography hobby, but when the batteries died unexpectedly, the iPhone’s camera simply wasn’t a good substitute.

I was frequently frustrated by the arduous process of software upgrades and not knowing if my settings and personal information, let alone my game progress, would be preserved. (They frequently weren’t, and I had no choice but to learn to be less attached to my digital data.) I was also irked by the fact that I couldn’t always tell whether I’d purchased an app previously (and thus could download it again for free), as well as not always knowing whether I’d backed each one up to my computer for future use.

I missed the ability to tell my phone, verbally, to play a certain song (though not with perfect accuracy) or make a call to my mother’s cell phone while I was driving down the road (even in the days before Delaware law prohibited cell phone use while driving). The iPhone’s voice recognition was a step backward, and I just stopped using the feature I’d enjoyed on my Windows phone.

When Apple came out with the iPhone 4, to much acclaim and continued adoption by average consumers, I wasn’t all that tempted to upgrade. Aside from the increased cost of an early upgrade, I was adamant that the lack of increased memory capacity was a mistake. The memory module maker Apple had used was already making 64 GB chips of the same physical size at roughly the same price the 32 GB chip had cost them. There was no reason for them not to offer a model with a larger capacity.

The camera was improved, but not enough that I could confidently travel without my point-and-shoot. The display quality was a tremendous improvement, offering twice the resolution, but that alone wasn’t enough to tempt me into an upgrade. The presence of a front-facing camera and the new video-chat feature called Facetime was intriguing, but I couldn’t imagine using it except for having my son call his grandmother, and without an Apple computer or an iPhone 4 of her own, that wasn’t going to work for her anyway.

So, I waited. And waited. And I waited well past the usual June announcement date for a new iPhone, as rumors circulated that supplier and quality issues had held up the “iPhone 5” until the fall.

Rumored features drive
interest in new phone

Up until days before the eventual Oct. 4 announcement, the rumors suggested the new iPhone would have a radical redesign, a much-improved camera, perhaps a 64 GB maximum capacity (finally!), access to some form of “cloud”-based storage (enabling wireless data backups and firmware updates, calendar syncing and more) and some form of voice-control technology, possibly based on the Siri app the Apple had purchased in the past year.

Now, I had used Siri. As a third-party app available for free in the App Store, it had been intriguing, especially to someone who had used a pretty decent voice-control software scheme on my prior phone. But Siri failed to impress back in 2010. She (and I call “her” that because of the use of a female voice for the app in the U.S.) seemed like little more than a glorified voice search function. You could ask her what movies were playing near you, and she’d use the phone’s location function to do a search. You could ask what time flights were leaving a nearby airport for a given destination.

Basically, Siri let you make Web searches while you drove, or, perhaps, if you were visually impaired. But I found the accuracy of Siri’s voice recognition no better than that of Apple’s built-in voice control. She had a hard time understanding me, and it doesn’t matter how easy it is to dictate a search command verbally – if the software misunderstands what you say nearly half the time, it’s useless. You can’t exactly correct a misinterpreted word as you drive down the road, especially these days.

I found Siri simply too frustrating to use, just as I had Apple’s voice control. That’s aside from the usefulness of what information she could provide, which was limited, in my experience. She might be able to find me a flight to Orlando, but she generally couldn’t tell me where the movie I wanted to see was playing nearby. And forget trying to use her to dictate an email or text message. Too many corrections to be made.

That left a bad taste in my mouth where Apple’s possible acquisition of the software came into play. I didn’t hold out much hope for voice control in the new iPhone. But, otherwise, it looked like the new device – whatever it was called – would be the fulfillment of many of what I had seen as the shortfalls of the iPhone 3G and 3GS.

Granted, the most recent rumors also said there would be no iPhone 5 this year, no major update, just an incremental update of the iPhone 4, perhaps as or alongside this free or low-cost version that had also been rumored. Rumors, too, had discounted the idea that Apple would go with 4G LTE data, which hasn’t yet been fully rolled out by most carriers, or with a phone-based wireless payment system that had also been bandied about as a possibility.

But most scoffed at the notion that the alleged prototypes of an iPhone 5 that had been spotted (even had cases made for) and the improved components known to be in production would not come to fruition, and soon.

Apple falls victim to the hype

Fast-forward to Oct. 4. Steve Jobs was home, quite ill, though few knew just how ill. He arranged for a private video feed of the much-anticipated reveal of the new iPhone, while his chair sat empty at the event itself. New Apple CEO Tim Cook, while not the showman Jobs was, offered the usual Apple-style presentation of what the company had been working on.

An iPhone 4S.

Now, in retrospect, I can tell you where Apple fell down in making this announcement. They failed to manage expectations that had been clearly established by the rumor mill. While much of what was rumored was true, the most significant things about a new iPhone – its physical design, its name, the notion that it would perform miracles – weren’t to be, yet.

The rumors of two iPhones being released were also inaccurate. There was no simultaneous release planned. Instead, a similar design to the iPhone 4 with improved components was due, with a major design change now not to be expected until 2012.

So, as Cook glossed initially over the features of the iPhone 4S, discontent stirred in the crowd watching the presentation in person and those following the information vicariously over the Internet. What? There was no iPhone 5? There was only an incremental update, in the same body? This was what Steve Jobs had been working so hard to finish when he stepped down as CEO?

Online polls during the presentation showed most respondents were “disappointed,” even as Cook went on to detail the new phone’s features. The cloud-based syncing? It was there. A much-improved camera? It was there, too. A 64 GB version? Yes, even that (finally!). There was also a location-based reminder function that most hadn’t envisioned.

Apple was also planning to offer a music subscription service that would offer high-quality versions of customers’ digital music that they had not purchased through iTunes, at $25 per year. And, yes, there was Siri.

Honestly, I don’t remember much mention of Siri in the early talk about the Oct. 4 event. However, there’s been no end of discussion of her since the iPhone 4S was released on Oct. 14, and for good reason.

But, getting back to the initial reaction to the 4S – it was disappointment, by and large. I understood why. It was those mismanaged expectations. They wanted that teardrop design, the larger or higher-resolution screen some had reported might be in the works. They wanted it to wake them up in the morning, make their coffee, set their appointments, pick up their dry-cleaning and tuck their kids into bed at night. And it could only do two of those things.

Cook had glossed over the features before going back in detail, leading some to write the phone off before they knew what it could do. And the knock-your-socks-off “one more thing” that Jobs had been famous for at the end of his presentations – it simply wasn’t there.

However, for someone wanting a higher-capacity device with a far better camera than the iPhone 3GS, the details Cook revealed were important, and impressive. The iPhone 4S had those things. Who cared if the package they came in was virtually identical to the existing phone? I went quickly from disappointed to excited. This was the phone I had been waiting for. This was the one that was ready for prime-time.

And many came to agree, pre-ordering a million of them in the first 24 hours, and purchasing 4 million in its first weekend of release. Once the word got out what the 4S could do, it seems people couldn’t resist the lure of the new phone.

With an 8 megapixel camera and an improved camera sensor, the iPhone 4S now captures photos that are in the same league with my 12 megapixel point-and-shoot. The only thing really missing for my purposes is an optical zoom. Color rendering is much improved – more accurate and doing a better job of getting the shot in low light. With iCloud, they’re also automatically sent to my computer and my iPad 2, along with my son’s iPod Touch, and vice-versa – a feature owners of the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 can also use, if they upgrade to iOS 5, which is now also available.

With 64 GB of storage, my phone now has room not only for my entire music collection but all the apps I’d like to have with me, a huge number of photos, some personal videos, plenty of documents, my entire Kindle e-book library and the few iBooks titles I own, and even a movie or five. Never again do I have to delete apps on the fly, just to make room to shoot a few photos or download a new song. (And iOS 5 also lets me see what apps I’ve already purchased and download them to any device on my account, without fear of getting charged again.)

The iPhone 4S has the same sleek, shiny, flat-backed design and heavy-duty glass construction as the iPhone 4 – a bonus for those iPhone 4 owners who do upgrade, as their existing cases (for the most part) will fit their new devices. For those upgrading from the 3GS, the thinner design, much-improved screen resolution and presence of the front-facing camera and Facetime will be a substantial upgrade, even without the enhanced camera and storage.

The iPhone 4S also features an upgraded battery, though the increased demands on the device are likely to add little, if any, use time for iPhone 4 owners. Already, reports of astonishing charge drop-offs are raising questions about both the new phone and iOS 5. (Consensus seems to be that there’s a bug in iOS 5 that causes location services to be constantly working. Disabling time zone setting by location seems to have fixed this for many, including myself. Expect a bug fix in the next OS update, which you can now do over the air once you’re on iOS 5, likely this week ro next.)

And then there’s Siri.

Is Siri worth the price of admission?

I’m not going to tell you iPhone 4 owners that you didn’t get rooked when Apple decided to make Siri an iPhone 4S-only offering. They took Siri’s existing third-party app out of the App Store and removed its functions for anyone not using an iPhone 4S, so even if you had downloaded it in the past, you can’t use it.

This was ostensibly because of the high demands Siri now places on the phone’s hardware, with the increased speed of the 4S making all the difference, we’ve been told. (And the phone is definitely speedy, coming in on speed tests at a level closer to the iPad 2 than the iPhone 4, thanks to the same dual-core processor. Web pages load virtually instantly.)

But early tests by the “jailbreak” community are showing that the iPhone 4, iPad 2 and fourth-generation iPod can run Siri, though they can’t legally release the hacked software that has allowed them to do so. Really, there’s not much evidence that Apple is requiring iPhone 4S hardware for Siri for any reason other than to encourage people to upgrade their phones, though the rumors this week were that Siri is now in internal testing on the iPhone 4.

And, you should understand, too, that Siri isn’t the same voice-based search app she once was. No, she is much, much more.

So, is Siri worth the cost of an early upgrade? That depends on how you use your phone.

Do you make calls while driving (using a speakerphone or headset, of course)? Siri now does what my Windows Phone came close to doing. You push and hold the iPhone’s home button. She dings at you, and you tell her what to do. In this case, you say, “Siri, call Mom.”

Now, you don’t have to have programmed your mother’s number into your contacts under the label “mom,” though that will work, too. Siri’s settings let you designate who you are, as the user, and then your relationship to your most important people, ranging from parents and siblings to friends, co-workers and more. So, when you tell Siri to “Call Mom,” she’s going to reference who you’ve listed as your mother and then make that call.

You don’t have to do what I did with my Windows phone, and use a pre-set and limited group of commands where you can’t deviate from the wording used. No, Siri has natural vocabulary recognition and understands most of what you might tell her to do. (The rumors are that Dragon’s Naturally Speaking software is behind Siri’s understanding of the English language, and most of the commands that work for that software also work with Siri.)

If you need to read or send text messages behind the wheel, Siri is also the answer to most of your concerns about safe driving. Tell Siri, “Send a text to John Doe, saying ‘I’ll be there in 20 minutes [period].’” She’ll formulate a text message to John Doe, per your contact list, and make it say, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” (Yes, she understands punctuation, as well. Just say the name of the mark you want. She won’t supply them automatically.) Tell her to reply to John Doe’s text, and she’ll start a reply message and then ask you what you want it to say.

Before she completes most of these tasks, Siri will also ask you for confirmation, so if she didn’t hear you right or she’s uncertain which John you wanted to send a message to, you’ll have a chance to “edit” or “cancel,” or “confirm.”

Siri also takes dictation, so if you need to write an email, have her start one, and then dictate what you want it to say. She’ll send it when you confirm you’re done. Dictation also works in the Notes app and other apps in which the microphone icon now appears as part of the on-screen keyboard, so you can make notes – or even write a novel – while driving to that meeting, without taking your eyes off the road.

While Siri can’t read individual emails (she apologizes to me when I ask, informing me I have more than 25 emails but bringing up a list of the new ones for me to access directly), she will read incoming text messages to you, and read back your replies, if you ask, making an ongoing conversation via text message possible even when you’ve got your hands full. That means not just when you’re driving, but when you’re cooking or painting, or changing the baby, for example.

You still have to activate Siri or keep her engaged in conversation so that she’s listening for commands, but you can do that either with the home button or using Siri’s Raise to Speak feature (though you can expect reduced battery life with that turned on, since the phone will constantly be monitoring whether you’ve raised it to your face).

A personal assistant, and more

What else can Siri do?

She can add an appointment to your calendar. Say, “Set an appointment for Nov. 12 at noon with John Doe at his office to discuss revenue.” Siri will create an appointment at that date and time, connect it to John Doe in your contacts and associate it with the address you have listed for his work. That’s handy when you hang up with John while you’re driving and don’t want to forget your meeting. It’s could even be faster than manually creating that appointment.

When time comes to get ready for that appointment, Siri can read the details to you, or reply to a more generalized query, such as “What’s my day look like?” She can also move existing appointments to another time.

Siri can also set a reminder, as I mentioned previously. Tell her to remind you to pick up milk when you leave work, and she’ll monitor where you are (another potential battery drainer, though) and a reminder will come up when you leave your designated work location, or any other location you specify.

The location-based reminders in iOS 5 work even without Siri, so those who don’t upgrade to the 4S can take advantage of this, too. And you can set reminders for when you arrive at a location, as well as when you leave, or at a given time.

If you’re getting ready to leave for a day at the office, or a trip to Disney World, Siri can also tell you what the weather forecast looks like. “Do I need an umbrella today?” results in responses such as “Yes, it’s likely to rain today,” and she will bring up the local weather forecast. Ask her about the weather in Orlando, Fla., and she’ll bring that forecast up.

Siri is also integrated with the massive information database of Wolfram Alpha. That means she can answer questions such as: “What is the square root of 2,351,234.23?” (The answer is 1,533.37348…) “How many teaspoons are in a half-cup?” (It’s 24.) “Who was the third president of the United States?” (Thomas Jefferson.) “How many calories are in a bagel?” (207.)

Whoever programmed Siri also had a sense of humor. She can be sassy, as well as sweet, perfunctory, as well as philosophical.

Asked “What is the meaning of life?” Siri says, “Try and be nice to people, avoid fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” (She has also been known to reference chocolate when asked this question…)

Told “You need to do a better job,” she replies, “Noted.”

“What is the best smartphone?” Siri knows. “I think you’ve already answered that question.”

She knows which side her bread is buttered on, too.

“Who is your favorite person?” “You are.”

People have spent days asking Siri obscure and curious questions, and she seems to understand most of them. A quick Web search will offer all sorts of amusing and useful responses she has given. And, if you ask her what you can ask her, she actually provides examples of her functions, such as looking up an address in your contacts or giving you directions.

Much of this, of course, treats Siri like a toy to show off, rather than a seriously functional piece of software, but anyone who wants to increase their productivity while they drive or do other tasks that require their hands will find Siri immensely useful. She is truly the answer to the question of how voice control should work. But Siri is only in beta release now, so you can expect her to continue to improve, as well as the kinds of temporary outages that have been reported in recent weeks, at least for now.

And she does need improvements.

A long road yet to travel to a future Jobs envisioned

Siri doesn’t always understand what you’re saying. Enunciate, speak plainly, get relatively close to the microphone and use her in a relatively quiet environment, and you’ll have the best chance. Add phonetic versions of hard-to-spell names to their contact information, to help her find them. (Ask her about them, and see how she tries to spell what you said, if you want the best chance of spelling a name in a way she’ll recognize.)

Siri isn’t able to answer every question or do so flawlessly, either. Asked what the weather is at Disney World, she provided the forecast for Disney, Okla. (I didn’t even know that existed.) As I noted already, she can’t read your email (yet).

She also can’t find flight information. Asked “Where is ‘Puss in Boots’ playing?” she replies that she can’t find any places matching “Puss in Boots.” Specify that you’re looking for the movie “Puss in Boots,” and she’ll grab some local show times (but not necessarily all of them).

Siri is also not available to developers to add into their apps, yet. That function can be expected, though when is anybody’s guess. A travel site’s app with Siri function will offer those flight times and may even be able to book a flight for you. Making a post to Facebook, right now, will require dictating the message into Notes, for example, and then copying and pasting it into the Facebook app, or sending it via email or text message. And Siri can’t check you in on Foursquare’s social-location service (again, yet). Being able to tell Siri to add a transaction to your finance app would also be a great feature.

But I think the most important thing about Siri is what she heralds for the future of humans’ interaction with computers and other devices. Already, there are rumors that Jobs was working on bringing Siri to an Internet-connected Apple-branded HDTV. In a couple years, you may have discarded the remote in favor of telling Siri what you want to watch or record. It has also been reported that Jobs’ last project – and one he worked tirelessly to complete – was the iPhone 5, and if the innovations of the iPhone 4S are any indication, the possibilities there are nearly limitless.

Siri’s existing functions and the potential use in devices beyond a phone both speak to the concept of voice-controlled computers with artificial intelligence, such as those depicted in the Star Trek movies and TV shows.

And that could, in fact, be Steve Jobs’ longest lasting legacy as we move into the future. The keyboard and the remote may go away. Our devices will get smarter, better at fulfilling our needs with minimal instruction. None of these things are likely to happen without adoption at the consumer level, and – beyond the Apple design aesthetic – that could be what Steve Jobs really leaves behind him: a way into a future that even science-fiction writers have only dreamed of making a reality.

It could be that it all starts with a new iPhone that left people disappointed when it was revealed, a day before Steve Jobs died. We’ll only know how Apple will move forward without him when time comes for the actual iPhone 5 to be unveiled, but I suspect that – no matter how substantial that expected redesign actually is – in a decade or two, it could be the Oct. 4, 2011, announcement of the iPhone 4S that will be looked back upon as the beginning of it all.

Jobs’ sister said in his eulogy that his final words were, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” We can only guess at what he was thinking at that moment, but I think it’s a solid possibility that we’ll be saying the same kind of thing about what someday comes from what Jobs shepherded from dream to reality.