Why Apple's Siri won't be the 'killer feature' for iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is coming! The iPhone 5 is coming! That’s the story of the day, but within the Apple [AAPL] big reveal of tomorrow you’d be wise to lavish a little attention on the iOS voice assistant, Siri -- but not too much, as the focus of this year’s release will be elsewhere.

[ABOVE: Just a reminder of what to expect from iOS 6, set to ship presumably within the next ten days or so.]

Serious on Siri

Siri has been in beta for a year now. The solution grabbed attention when it was announced, but it’s fair to say its initial promise has been limited by problems understanding some accents, phrases or figures of speech along with intermittent service outages.

It’s arguable that what Apple has managed to achieve with Siri is to take voice recognition into the mainstream. This has opened expectation of ever more improved services in future, with home control systems, televisions, automobiles and other implementations of voice-controlled technology in development.

Alternative solutions include IBM’s Watson, Evi and others. Indeed, activity in the sector is so volatile that the iPhone-less China Mobile recently acquired a 15 percent stake in Siri-like voice recognition systems maker, iFlytek.

Intensification of activity in the sector and improvements within the technology that forms the backbone of Siri are sure to be implemented within iOS6. It’s pretty clear that an upgrade to set the scene for this took place last week when the Siri server went down last Friday.

However I’m not anticipating Siri will be stage central tomorrow, it will play a part but the focus will be on other features. Why? Because even within the improvements described below, the promise of the voice assistant remains to be met.

What's coming?

What do we definitively know to expect? We know it will add support for Spanish, Italian, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese and will access databases to deliver sports scores and to secure restaurant reservations. You’ll also be able to use it to post to Twitter, update your Facebook status or launch an app. It will also introduce a new Eyes Free mode which will enable you to interact with your iPhone.

Apple’s big problem here is that the initial enthusiasm for Siri has worn off. People haven’t been thrilled by the user experience -- personally, I’ve stopped trying to use it because the service is frequently unavailable via my UK network. This means that whatever Apple does introduce within its Voice Assistant, it will both have to amaze consumers while ensuring the software does what it says on the can.

Speaking to MacNewsWorld Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research said: "Siri was a bit of a game-changer when it came out on the 4S... it was definitely a quantitative factor in 4S sales, and so it's expected to be a big part of the iPhone 5."

I don’t agree. I think there’s work to be done. Apple takes the challenge seriously. That’s clear on news the company has dropped Audience, its existing supplier of audio processing technology, from the iPhone 5, prompting speculation it intends bringing even more of its voice technology development in-house. 

This suggests that, other than its dependency on Nuance for voice recognition support, the company intends leading its own development of these tools. 

Development continues

Voice recognition technology isn’t new -- the company behind most services (Nuance) has been engaged in developing ever more effective voice recog solutions for many years; neither was Apple first to market with such a solution though it was first to bring it to such a wide church of consumer users.

You need an active Internet connection to use Siri. That’s because the recognition isn’t handled on your device, but by servers equipped with Nuance technology held elsewhere. This means you aren’t dependent on your smartphone’s processor, but on those situated at the remote server farm. This also means Siri learns as it gets used. This means that in the last year the software has been quietly learning how to better recognize what’s being said.

This information is enabling Nuance to develop more accurate voice recognition systems: for example, the company’s recently revealed Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 software is described as being 15 percent more accurate than before and now allows users to command and control apps using their voice. 

In recent months, Nuance’s voice technologies have appeared within a slew of new products, including Grainger’s mobile app for iOS and Android, a smart television from Sharp and handsets from T-Mobile

I think it likely Apple will keep its powder dry as regards its voice assistant because it will want to bestow its magical powers on the Apple television, should it be able to reach agreement with broadcast content providers. That’s because Siri is part of Apple’s strategy for the digital home.

Design, features and components

Yes, there will be improvements to the software to be announced tomorrow and it seems likely we’ll see the voice assistant quietly move forward from beta status, but Siri won’t be the rock star it was when it came to the iPhone 4S introduction, not this year. In the words of Sterne Agee analyst, Shaw Wu:

We anticipate that iPhone 5 will drive a significant product cycle and put a lot of pressure on competitors. The previous update from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S was arguably a relatively minor one with Siri being the biggest new feature.

This means that while Apple focused on Siri’s advanced tech last time around, this time the marketing’s going to be about design, graphics power, slimness and 4G broadband.

Wu writes once again: “From our understanding, the iPhone 5 will have 3 significant new features: (1) a larger screen; (2) 4G LTE wireless; and (3) advanced software features including Maps with turn-by-turn navigation and native integration with social networks including Facebook and Yelp. We are currently modeling 45 million total iPhone units for the December quarter, which is well above the previous record high of 37 million units set in the December 2011 quarter.

Then the kicker in terms of Apple’s iPhone 5 component supply-led fortunes in the coming year: “We believe this could turn out conservative but believe a gating factor could be availability of new in-cell touchscreens.”

The smartphone wars across the next 12-months won’t just be about features and design but also in the ability to actually bring products in record quantities to market. This battle for component supply is likely to beset all handset manufacturers engaged in this part of the industry, an industry characterized by rapid growth and limited resources.

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