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After a month, Siri finds her voice

Michael deAgonia | Nov. 25, 2011
The arrival of voice technology that works marks an inflection point in computing.

After a month of using Siri, the new voice-controlled "personal assistant" available on the iPhone 4S, I've decided it may be time to add voice control to the list of paradigm-shifting ways to interact with a computer -- right behind the mouse, keyboard and, more recently, touch gestures. While voice control remains far from perfect, the ease of use and instant results Siri delivers may be just enough to shift people's habits. It's certainly changed mine.

Controlling computers using voice commands has been a promised fantasy for years. Though various companies have tried, none has delivered something easy, convenient, or reliable enough to work well for most users. Apple's Mac OS has had voice commands built in since the mid-1990s, and I recall Windows booths at CompUSA staffed by Dragon Dictation engineers wearing awkward headsets, as OS/2 Warp gathered dust on the shelves.

In fact, most phones have been able to do voice-controlled contact and number dialing since before the arrival of smartphones. Despite widespread availability, voice control never gained traction because the effort required to get it to work right wasn't worth it for most people. Voice control -- from the old Speakable Items in Mac OS to the method of dialing contacts on older cell phones -- always required specific phrasing that sounded more like a command than natural speech.

"Dial 5-5-5-5-5-5-1-2-3-4" -- enunciating each word and number -- is a lot harder to do on a regular basis than to simply say "Call mom."

How Siri is different

Siri changes things in much the same way the original Mac changed computing for many people. Before the Mac arrived in 1984, most computers required specific text commands to be entered into terminals. The combination of the mouse and the graphic user interface not only forever changed the direction of those who built and designed computers; it also opened up computing to a new batch of users. Similarly, touch-screen devices were available long before the first iPhone arrived in 2007, but it was the iPhone's hardware and software combo that changed expectations of what a next-generation phone should be like -- and opened the door to the iPad three years later. How you connect with technology matters, whether it's by GUI, touch or voice. And new ways of interacting with technology can pique the interest of people who have avoided it in the past.

This is what makes Siri different -- and better -- than earlier voice technology. With Siri, the syntax -- that is, the way you phrase an inquiry -- doesn't always have to be exact. For the most part, when you make a request for information, dictate an email or issue a command, the technology behind Siri parses out what is meant and responds accordingly. As noted, most phones understand a "dial" command followed by a string of numbers, but Siri knows exactly what to do when told to "create a reminder for every Thursday morning at 7:08 to take out the trash."


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