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'Siri, I have some some suggestions for you'

Apple's voice-controlled personal assistant could be better; here's how.

March 13, 2012 06:05 AM ET

Computerworld - When Apple's new iPad was unveiled last week, one of the features users had hoped for didn't come with it. Siri, the voice-controlled personal assistant that's been such a hit on the iPhone 4S, wasn't among the tablet's new features. (Apple did add a dictation feature, but it has none of Siri's interactivity; all you can do is one-way dictation.)

Despite the disappointment of Siri users, this is actually not a bad move on Apple's part. Siri is still in beta and could use a little polishing before being rolled out to the iPad. Even though I found in my first month of use that it is good enough to change users' habits, Apple clearly wants to make damn sure Siri works as billed. Even in beta, Siri's easy interaction, fast results and sometimes quirky responses produce an emotional reaction that has encouraged people to use it -- a lot.

It also sent rivals scrambling to come up with a similar service. Since Siri's debut in October, several Android and iPhone apps have tried without much luck to recreate the basic experience, and companies are reinvesting resources in their own virtual assistants. Not surprisingly, Google is hoping to create its own version of Siri.

Meanwhile, Siri's prominence continues to grow: A quarter of Wolfram Alpha requests are now attributed to Siri, and there was even an episode of The Big Bang Theory featuring a subplot dedicated to Siri. Apparently, she is the only female who Raj can actually speak to while sober.

There are even spoof videos on YouTube showing how Siri wants to kill you -- one example can be found here, and another here. That may not be the message Apple wants, perhaps, but it's a certain sign that the technology has entered the zeitgeist.

I now find myself relying on Siri about a dozen times a day, mostly during my daily commute. But what's good enough for me (for now) isn't good enough for Apple. With that in mind, there are some needed enhancements I'd like to see before Siri is in the hands of millions more users.

Reliability

The most important feature Siri needs is reliability. Not surprisingly, Siri users want a number of new features -- more commands, access to more databases, and, for those not in the U.S., more everything. (Localized support for Siri continues to expand; iOS 5.1 offers Japanese support.) But for me, reliability is the more important thing Apple should be working on.

In its current form, Siri still has some weak points: It needs an active Internet connection and Apple's servers need to be accessible to Siri commands. There haven't been widespread outages similar to those that occurred last fall, but there are still moments when it is unable to connect to a network. Needless to say, Siri is no longer a timesaver if you've spent the last 20 seconds waiting to find out that it can't connect to the network. (Issues with the technology even prompted a lawsuit against Apple over Siri's shortcomings.)

Timing adds to the frustration, as there's nothing like realizing that your long-winded "note to self" has disappeared into the ether. Sure, the annoyance is softened by cute responses, such as: "My mind is going, Mike, I can feel it. I can feel it." But the inability to operate is still a failure. With enough of those failures -- including the long wait for Siri to time out -- users will begin to question the logic of using voice commands instead of just doing something themselves.



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