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

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.

In a nutshell, Siri responds to the spoken word, allowing you to send emails or text messages, get directions, set up appointments, search the Web and even check the weather -- merely by talking to your phone. Whether it will work as well in the real world as it does on stage remains to be seen. But even if it isn't quite as good as billed, it has the potential to change how we relate to the technology around us. It's flat-out cool, but it also brings with it important privacy implications.

Siri -- straight out of science fiction

Let's start with Siri. Anyone who's been following Apple knew this type of feature was coming. After all, Apple bought the company Siri for its personal assistant functionality and made a deal with Nuance to leverage that company's speech recognition and dictation technology. So, it seemed likely that an assistant using voice recognition would be a part of Apple's plans.

What I don't think anyone expected was to see how polished the natural speech recognition capabilities are. The fact that Siri can relate abstract concepts like what a raincoat means or your relationship to your spouse really demonstrates that this is a level of speech recognition that we haven't really seen before -- except, perhaps, in science fiction.

Obviously, Siri may not work quite so well in the day-to-day world; like any speech recognition product, it will need to learn a user's voice and patterns. It may work well for some users because of the sound of their voices or the speech patterns they use; others may not be so lucky. But even if Siri is only half as good as what Apple presented yesterday, it will be a big deal because it integrates with the built-in apps that ship on the iPhone 4S.

The big concern about Siri might not be how well it recognizes your voice, however. Since the processing is done off the device, you probably won't be able to use it with an iPhone in airplane mode or if you're someplace without Internet connectivity.

Keith Shaw and Ken Mingis chat about the new iPhone 4S, announced today by Apple.

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