Elgan: Getting serious about Siri

Apple's talkative new virtual assistant is no parlor trick. It's a powerful tool, especially if you use these three Pro Tips.

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If this sounds unappealing to you because you don't like on-screen keyboards, you should also know that you'll barely do any typing at all with this PC of the future. Most of the input will be via voice, using a virtual assistant like Siri. What little typing you do will be greatly facilitated by tomorrow's intelligent software that will figure out what you're intending to type and offer to type it for you -- think auto-correct on steroids.

The PC in the future, in other words, uses Siri-like assistant technology as a primary and necessary user interface.

Apple understands this. Google's Andy Rubin, apparently, may not.

As I've written before, Apple is really good at training users to embrace new ways of doing things. For example, they forced millions to embrace virtual keyboards by banning any company from making a physical keyboard for the original iPhone.

And now they're doing the same thing with Siri.

We've all been trained by the WIMP paradigm to think in terms of applications. And those instincts lead us at first to use Siri to first open apps. But if you say, "Siri, open Messages," Siri will deny the request. (Instead, you say: "Tell Steve I'll be late.")

It would have been easy for Apple to allow Siri to also open apps. But Apple wants to train us all how to use computers the new way via virtual assistants, rather than the old way.

OK, I promised some Pro Tips for making Siri more powerful. Here they are.

Pro Tip 1: Give Siri an assistant of its own

In the future, virtual assistants like Siri will do all kinds of things for you. But for now, Siri is pretty limited in what it can do by itself.

One thing Siri can do is send text messages. And text messages can do powerful things, with the right help.

I told you recently about a new service called "If This Then That," which is abbreviated and lowercased by the company as: ifttt, for some reason.

The service lets you connect together all kinds of Internet-based services. One of these services is SMS. And that's the key to empowering Siri.

Here's how it works: You use Siri to send a text to ifttt, and that service can turn your text into a Facebook or Twitter post, Tumblr, Posterous or Wordpress blog post, an Evernote entry or any number of other actions.

I don't need to give you the step-by-step instructions here. That's what ifttt does really well. Just follow the on-screen instructions for taking action with SMS text messages, add ifttt as a contact on your iPhone, then use Siri to create and send those text messages.

Pro Tip 2: Master Siri's surprising e-mail power

Most Siri users I know think Siri is lousy at doing email. Here's how email commands usually go:

User: "Send an email."

Siri: "To whom shall I send it?"

User: "Deven."

Siri: "What's the subject of your email?"

User: "Halloween"

Siri: "What would you like your email to say?"

User: "I'm having a Halloween party, and hope you can come!"

Siri: "Here's the email message to Deven. Ready to send it?"

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