I’ve had voice-powered features on my phone for nearly a decade now, but I seldom if ever used them until Siri on the iPhone 4S. Now, I can’t stop yammering away at my phone, even when I’m out in public and talking to it via headset. What is it about Apple’s new “personal assistant” that makes doing something I once actively abhorred feel natural, and even enjoyable?
What’s in a name?
In a recent iMessage conversation (dictated to Siri, in fact), sometime TAB contributor Olly Farshi brought up how important it is that Siri has a name, and one that isn’t just “iPhone.” It’s a point that struck me as especially important when I considered that I often address Siri by name (i.e., “Siri, what’s the weather going to be like this weekend?”) even though there’s no practical reason to.
Giving Siri a name independent of the device she lives on makes it easier to anthropomorphize her (note that I also usually default to referring to her by gendered pronoun). The name makes it easier to “relate” to Siri, and that makes it easier for us to act more naturally around her, which in turn results in a much more usable product. Increased usability leads naturally to increased adoption.
By keeping the name “Siri” instead of replacing it with “iPhone” or something else product-related, Apple has also created a powerful new brand that it can leverage cross-platform. Users will develop a sort of relationship with Siri that can carry over to other products–the iPad and the Mac will likely see some incarnation of her down the road.
Siri is mostly hit, hardly miss, and will only get better
Another huge reason I’ve taken to Siri is that it doesn’t make me feel like an idiot, or tacitly criticize me for my terrible mumbling. Most of the time (far more than any previous similar tech I’ve used), Siri understands exactly what I’m asking or telling her. And that’s no less true when I have music on in the background, astoundingly enough.
In the past, voice technology that promised to save me time ended up causing me much more frustration than good. Not so with Siri. I can have natural conversations via text message at nearly the speed of speech, and definitely much faster than I can type on my iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard. Siri also takes the sting out of annoying repetitive tasks that I have to perform daily in the course of my job, like looking up the stock symbols for publicly traded companies.
Right now, the lack of localization support for countries outside the U.S. is a bit of a blind spot, but Apple has promised maps and local search are on the way for other markets in 2012. And even without it, there’s plenty of real use value in Siri; by no means is it just a gimmick.
Siri will grow with me
Having a relationship with a software service sounds a little silly, but that’s exactly what Apple has laid the groundwork for here. Already, you can tell Siri about your family and friends, let it know where you lay your head at night, and tell it where you’re going to be next week. But that’s just the beginning.
There’s a tremendous about of opportunity for Apple in making Siri a learning, personalized service that can track and use your history across devices and platforms. Siri on the Mac shouldn’t need to be told who your brother is; she already learned that when you first met on the iPhone. Favorite restaurants and types of food? Also something Siri learned from your existing usage history.
Being able to restore a new device from an old backup on a previous one does a fairly good job of making sure you can preserve your user experience across hardware upgrades, but imagine something much more ambitious; an old friend who helps you pick up right where you left off every time you boot up a new Mac or power on a new iPhone. The promise of that kind of familiarity down the road is another thing that keeps me talking to Siri.
Good start, but now the hard work begins
Siri is definitely a strong play for Apple, but it’s also only an opening hand. For Siri to stay relevant and effective, Apple will have to rapidly iterate and keep the improvements coming, especially since you know the competition will be hot on Siri’s heels after the iPhone 4S’s impressive debut performance.
There’s another, maybe more important reason why Siri has to change, however: because people change, too. One of Siri’s key advantages over competing services is the way she can be easily anthropomorphized. Once the novelty of Siri wears off, we’ll have to see her as a deep and shifting individual in order to continue to foster that identification.