With Siri, Apple's iPhone 4S gets a voice


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Geo-location, model diversity among Tuesday's big announcements

Well, now we know what Apple meant when it billed yesterday's big announcement as a "Let's talk iPhone" event.

During the hour and a half for which Apple execs were on stage at the company's Cupertino, Calif. headquarters, the company unveiled the new iPhone 4S, showed off the new Siri digital assistant, talked up an updated iPod lineup and recapped what's coming with next week's rollout of iCloud and iOS 5. (Much of the information about iCloud and iOS 5 was a repeat of what we heard in June at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.)

The big news was, not surprisingly, the launch of the iPhone 4S and the new Siri voice-activated digital assistant. In fact, the Siri demos during the rollout -- you can watch a video of the entire event here -- clearly wowed the media types in attendance.

An even bigger concern may be this: If Siri is using off-device analysis, what information might it be transmitting with your voice? Even just having it read and reply to emails could raise concerns, particularly in fields where confidentiality is required, such as healthcare, finance, the legal profession and elsewhere. Since Apple will likely be crowd-sourcing Siri's data, just as Google does with its various voice services, privacy advocates may soon have reason to raise red flags about the service.

This could also be an issue if voice commands and interactions are cached on the device. That would almost certainly provide more data about your and/or your professional life should your iPhone 4S be lost or stolen. With that in mind, I expect Apple will allow the feature to be disabled through mobile device management suites for professional users.

Perhaps an even more fundamental question is how comfortable are we going to be with using technology like this. For most of us, using this level of speech recognition is going to be a completely new way of interacting with technology. Are we going to think it's incredibly cool in a "the future is now" sort of way? Or is it going to feel weird having a conversation with a smartphone? Will it be part of our everyday life or a cool feature we play with for a few days, show off to our friends and family, and then never use?

One of the big complaints about the iPhone (and, indeed, many Apple products) has always been that it's a premium device -- with a premium price. Apple has never shown much interest in diversifying into some of the lower price points dominated by feature phones and lower-end Android handsets.

That seems to have changed. The iPhone 3GS is now available for free -- free! -- from AT&T with a two-year contract. That puts it on equal footing from a price perspective with, well, every phone that AT&T offers. (The contract-free unlocked iPhone 3GS will still run you $375 while a contract-free unlocked iPhone 4 is a none-too-cheap $549.)

iPhone 4S announcement
Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, speaks about the iPhone 4S at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. (Photo by Robert Galbraith / Reuters)
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