Is Siri a game-changing feature or just a novelty?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: October 14, 2011

Happy iPhone 4S day, all.

To all of those who pre-ordered an iPhone 4S or stood in line for one this morning, you probably have your iPhone by now – or you will in the next few hours, if you pre-ordered in time. Comparing the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 4, not a lot has changed aesthetically, and the upgrades inside are few. The camera is much better than before and it now sports an A5 (dual-core) processor. The one key benefit in the 4S, though, comes in the form of software.

At the Apple keynote last week, Tim Cook announced a new feature for iOS 5: Siri. For those of you who don't know (I'd be surprised if you didn't by now), Siri is the artificial intelligence that acts as a personal assistant for the iPhone. You can talk to your phone to set appointments in your calendar, set your alarm, send text messages and ask it almost anything.

I squeezed in a bit of speculation prior to the keynote last Tuesday. Ben Parr of Mashable wrote of how Siri would be a game-changing feature of iOS, and Norman Winarsky, co-founder of Siri, stated how he believed artificial intelligence and Siri would change the way we interact with personal computers forever. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Today, Parr wrote another article on Siri, stating that it's likely not the reason people bought the iPhone 4S, but why they will fall in love with it. He states:

"Siri is one of those features you have to use to fully understand and appreciate. You only grasp just what it can do for your life once you start playing with it — and this my experience when I tried it out," and "Siri will be the reason a lot of people will love — and not just like — the new iPhone. In two years, when they’re ready to buy a new phone, they’re going to get an iPhone because Siri has changed how they fundamentally perceive their phones."

Now, three hours after playing around with Siri, I'm still skeptical that it's anything more than a novelty feature.

Don't get me wrong, Siri is fun. I've been asking it pointless questions, taking screen captures and posting them to Twitter for a few hours now. (Sorry, all, I got a bit carried away.) Siri, do you love me? What is the meaning of life? How intelligent are you? And that's the problem. I can't ever see myself realistically, seriously asking my phone a question verbally. I see myself showing it to my friends and using it for a while, probably when both hands aren't free. But months down the road, it's just going to be another feature of iOS – nothing particularly special.

Just like I don't take phone calls in a public place (with the exception of stepping outside, of course), I'm not going to whip my phone out and ask, "Where can I find a coffee shop in Concord?" Even sitting in my apartment messing around with it, it was awkward talking to my phone. There are just some things that are ideally awesome, but in practical use, they're a bit silly. Siri is one of those.

It is worth noting that some features of Siri are quite useful. For instance, you can tell Siri, "I'm drunk," and it will find the nearest cab service for you. And it is integrated with the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine, so you can ask it for answers to general reference questions and even fairly complex math problems, if you can dictate them clearly enough.

Personally, though, I don't find talking to my phone any more simple or quick than inputting information by hand or firing up the apparently archaic search engine. And there have been several times that it can't understand what I've said. It doesn't wrongly guess diction often, but it does ask me to repeat myself every now and then, which is extremely annoying. Voice input is still quite limited and it can be very frustrating at times.

Siri is fun and cool to use, but I'm not convinced it's a game-changing feature that will alter how people "fundamentally perceive their phones." It's quite limited in functionality and definitely needs some time to grow and evolve. Siri needs to learn to play nicely with other applications. For starters, being able to tweet through the Twitter for iPhone application using Siri would be nice.

What about you, folks? Have you played with Siri yet? If so, what do you think about it so far? Is it going to be a feature that fundamentally changes the cell phone? Or is it just a new feature for show and tell?

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