A long time ago, I made a pact with Apple: “You can control my entire technological life, from my computer to my phone to my stereo. I’ll pay premium prices. I’ll dive into your product ecosystem, and buy books and music and movies and apps from you. Even though they won’t work on devices made by anybody else.”
In exchange for surrendering control and submitting to that heftier price tag, I expect Apple products to simply work. That’s all. If you use Apple products, I suspect you made a similar bargain.
And so when I first saw the ads for Siri, I expected something remarkable, like I always do with Apple products. The first true consumer-grade AI. Can you imagine how amazing it would be to have a real intelligent assistant on your phone?
After playing with Siri for more than a month, I’m still waiting to find out. Instead of an intelligent assistant, I found a lie, and worse, a broken promise.
Here’s the thing: Apple has to bring it to justify those premium prices. And it typically does, even when it is late to the game. The iPod wasn’t the first music player, but it was the best; it was simple and wonderful. The iPhone was not the first smartphone, but it changed people’s lives in a way that hadn’t happened before, it was intuitive and powerful The iPad was not the first of its kind, but I waited for the Cupertino Nod to buy a tablet. You know what? It was worth the wait too.
And then there’s Siri. If I wanted a half-baked voice control system, I could snag a cheap Android phone outright. Instead I waited and gladly plunked down hundreds of dollars on a new iPhone in October — because it promised to be flawless (or close enough), like everything before it.
Check out any of Apple’s ads for the iPhone 4S. They’re promoting Siri so hard you’d be forgiven for thinking Siri is the new CEO of Apple. And it’s not just that first wave of TV ads; a recent email Apple sent out urges you to “Give the phone that everyone’s talking about. And talking to.” It promises “Siri: The intelligent assistant you can ask to make calls, send texts, set reminders and more.”
What those Apple ads fail to report — at all — is that Siri is very much a half-baked product. Siri is officially in beta. Go to Siri’s homepage on Apple.com, and you’ll even notice a little beta tag by the name.
I’m sorry. Beta? Beta is for Google. When Apple does a public beta, it usually keeps it out of the hands of the, you know, public. It typically makes you go get betas. It doesn’t force them on you, much less advertise them. Not that it is an effective disclaimer for the vast buying public. For most people who see Apple’s ads and buy iPhones, the word beta means nothing at all.
That speech recognition is the most obvious example of that beta. Siri’s most common reply to me is that it “didn’t quite get that.” Is this due to my accent? Is it because I mumble? I don’t know, but I do know that my Nexus rarely failed to understand me in the ways Siri does.
Worse than its failure to understand my words is its failure to understand my meaning. Siri is often quite dumb. Sure, it will do what you tell it. But it doesn’t interpret or do nuance, even though that is exactly what Apple promises. The recent abortion flap, for example, seems to be due to Siri’s interpretive failures. Granted, I’m not planning on having an abortion anytime soon, but let’s talk about hospitals.
In the Siri commercial, a woman asks Siri for the fastest way to a particular hospital. That only works because she tells it exactly where she wants to go. Siri is pretty good when you tell it exactly and explicitly what you want. But move into real-world examples and Siri breaks down.
If instead of asking Siri the fastest way to Hospital X, you ask for the fastest way to get to an emergency room, it kicks back a list of all the ones in the area, leaving you bleeding on the floor to decide. Siri provides distances, but it doesn’t show travel time (or traffic congestion) in that list. In short, it doesn’t show the fastest way at all. I’m bleeding here! It may not be an outright lie, but it’s disingenuous enough that I felt deceived when I discovered it. I mean, odds are, if you’re asking for the fastest directions to some sort of medical centre, it’s an emergency. Yeah, the ad is literally true, but also completely false.
It’s also the reason Apple doesn’t show Siri’s full reply when people ask it for directions in the commercials: It doesn’t actually navigate! Dumb old GPS programs and devices have been doing this for years. My nearly two-year-old Android phone did this with aplomb when I would bark an address at it. But not Siri. Siri just delivers a list, which I need to take my eyes off the road to advance through. And God forbid I go off-route. While my Nexus would automatically re-route me, with Siri I have to pull over and ask again. That’s stupid.
The ads deceived me in other subtle ways, too. I love John Coltrane. I’ve got many of his songs in my music library, yet when I ask Siri to “play some Coltrane” (just like in the commercial!) it tells me it can’t find any “coal train”. Is that my fault, Siri? Or do you just not do homophones? Are you not intelligent enough to contextualise sound?
There are more basic interpretive issues as well. I can command Siri to “send my wife a text message and tell her I want to meet her for lunch.” Siri understands that when I say “tell her” I’m still talking about my wife (or whoever), but then it promptly forgets, mid-sentence. So instead of a message that says “I want to meet you for lunch”, it fires off a message reading, “I want to meet her for lunch”. Sure, that’s a fine detail. And yet it’s exactly the kind of detail that I expect of Apple, that usually sets Apple products apart.
And there are basic voice commands you’d think something with a modicum of intelligence in your phone’s operating system could do that Siri simply can’t. It won’t tell me how much battery life is left, or turn my Wi-Fi antenna on or off. It won’t tell me how much free space is left on my phone. It won’t switch my phone to silent or aeroplane mode. It won’t launch the App Store. Or the iTunes Store.
In fact, it basically ignores apps altogether. It can’t launch installed third-party apps, or kill ones that are running. Despite Twitter’s deep integration in iOS 5, it won’t send a tweet for you. If I have my camera app open, it can’t take a picture or set a timer (“I’m not much of a photographer,” it replies), which is precisely the kind of thing voice control could be very useful for. It won’t show specific photos, either. I can define who my wife is in iPhoto, and sync that with my phone. Yet ask Siri to show me a picture of her, and it cluelessly offers to search the web for “picture of my wife”. Dude! Totally not what I was looking for.
There are also things it just fails at. For example, from the cafe where I’m writing this, there are no fewer than three open Wi-Fi hotspots in range. But when I ask “are there open Wi-Fi networks nearby”, it replies that there are not. Again, kind of dumb.
But the worst aspect, and something that Apple downplays in its promotional materials, is that Siri requires a network connection to work. Lose your connection and you lose your assistant. At one point last month, that network dependency meant Siri went down for almost everyone, at the same time. Advertising materials relegate this to small print that isn’t even clearly about Siri.
And for me, once the novelty wore off, what I found was that Siri is not so intelligent after all — it’s simply another voice program that will obey very specific commands. If it knows those commands. If it can understand you. And if it has a network connection. Were this Google, or Microsoft, I’d shrug. But it’s not, it’s Apple. And Apple is the company that sells perfection. It’s a company that usually keeps its promises, and in its Siri ads, it promises far more than what it actually delivers. That’s not what any of us signed up for.