Does the Siri outage reveal its success?


Siri went down on Thursday for its first extended outage — around five hours, according to most counts. That doesn’t seem like an exceedingly long outage (especially compared to the recent multiday service blackout for RIM’s BlackBerry devices), but it sparked many discussion threads and countless news articles. The tenor of much of the talk is that Apple made a major gaffe in allowing this to happen. But in fact, Apple might also want to reflect on this after the fact and pat itself on the back.

Of course, the outage was annoying and inconvenient, and hopefully Apple learned a valuable lesson about managing a large-scale, persistent data service managed from its own server facility, and this will never happen again. But the extent of the outcry as the outage wore on, as well as the attempts on Friday to follow up and try to get to the bottom of what exactly happened, show that Siri’s effect on the mobile landscape is not insignificant.

It could be the case that Apple’s servers couldn’t handle the demand that Siri was putting on the system, as some users who contacted Apple support about the problem were told. That would indicate that Apple underestimated the scale of demand for Siri, which suggests the personal assistant is being used a lot. But even if the problem is independent of demand, the fact that the news of Siri’s going down spread as far and as quickly as it did, and elicited so much response from the user community, indicates that it is finding a place in people’s lives. Some of the media attention could be attributed to the fact that people love when a winner like Apple stumbles, but user concern seems genuine.

When Apple first announced the personal assistant software, I admit to thinking that Siri had limited value beyond triggering an initial feeling of novelty that would fade quickly. After using Siri myself, I found that it actually had a lot of real use value, even in countries where it hasn’t yet gained localization features. The indignation of users affected by the outage indicates that I wasn’t the only one who found myself leaning on Siri a lot more heavily than I expected to.

It’s not as widespread, but the outcry about Siri’s downtime reminds me of the web-wide groans that go up every time the Twitter fail whale makes one of its visits or when Tumblr takes a tumble. That’s a minor PR problem for Apple in the short term, but in the larger picture, it’s a very good thing that people miss Siri when she’s not around.

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