I admit it: I love Siri. It helps that I work from home, so I can talk to my phone without inhibitions. It doesn't hurt that I generally crave pseudohuman contact. But the real reason is simply that I find Siri so useful. And in iOS 6, Siri has become even more useful than it was before.
The iOS virtual assistant has learned to respond accurately to a variety of new instructions. You can now use Siri to get information about movies, sports, restaurant reviews, and reservations, in addition to testing its know-how regarding weather, stocks, and the like. You can also use Siri to post to Facebook and Twitter, launch apps, and get directions—and that’s all in addition to its ability to set timers, send messages, perform searches, and more.
I now find myself using Siri throughout the day, for a wide variety of tasks and queries. Here's how one such day might go.
First thing in the morning, I wake up to one of my kids clomping into my room. Siri can’t help with that. But when it’s time to figure out what to wear, I generally ask Siri two questions. "What’s today’s forecast?" (or some variation) comes first. (You can phrase that question and many other comments almost any way you want, and Siri will understand; you don't have to memorize one specific way to phrase a question.)
Once I know how warmly to dress that day, I find out what kinds of clothes I should put on. The key factor is whether it’s a normal working-from-home day or a day when I might actually interact with other human beings. So I say, "Show me today." That instructs Siri to present a list of all the events on my calendar for the day.
Armed with that intel, I’m off to shave and shower. Inevitably, at some point—often during the toothbrushing portion of my ablutions—I’ll remember something I forgot to do the night before. So I once again turn to Siri: "Remind me to put the DVD in the mailbox at 8 a.m."
The workday begins
It’s rare that a workday of mine gets under way without a reminder or two from the night before beeping on my Mac and iOS devices, something like “Write the Siri story”—almost undoubtedly a reminder I set via Siri.
While colleagues formally schedule most of our office meetings in our shared calendaring system, someone occasionally sends out an email instead. Even though Fantastical is in my menu bar and Calendar sits patiently in my Dock, I often turn to Siri for help instead: "Put 'Call with Dan' on my calendar for 1 p.m. Pacific Time today."
As I research stories throughout the day, I rely on Siri to place important phone calls, too. Sometimes I just say "Call" followed by the actual digits; if it’s a contact in my address book, I might instead say "Call Apple PR."
Come lunchtime, if I'm cooking, I time it via Siri: "Set a timer for 12 minutes." (Note that Reminders works great with relative times, too; you can say "Remind me to check the oven in 12 minutes," if that’s more your style.) Sometimes, during lunch, I’ll think to call my sister in Israel. But since I never remember the time difference, I tend to ask my best friend: "Siri, what time is it in Jerusalem?"
Thanks to iOS 6, I can use Siri to satisfy other burning questions at lunch now, too. "When do the Eagles play next?" When Siri answers, I can then use it to compare the starting quarterbacks’ stats, by asking about each one in turn.
This week the Eagles play the Arizona Cardinals, with former Eagles backup Kevin Kolb taking the start for the Cardinals at quarterback. I couldn’t get Siri to understand me when I tried to say Kolb’s last name, so I used a clunky but functional workaround. First I asked about the Cardinals' roster: "What’s the Arizona Cardinals' starting lineup?" When I confirmed that Kolb wore number 4, I asked Siri, "Who wears number 4 for the Arizona Cardinals?" That brought up the stats I was after. You can get even more creative with your questioning when Siri can’t parse a name properly: "Who’s taller, Arizona Cardinals quarterback number 4 or Eagles quarterback Michael Vick?" (It's Kolb by 3 inches.)
The fact that Siri struggles with less-common names can become problematic, not just for sports queries, but for movies too. Generally Siri will perform capably in understanding names that belong to the people in your address book. But when it comes to athletes and movie stars, Siri fares far better with “Tom Brady” than “Nnamdi Asomugha.”
I try to schedule any outside appointments for around the lunch hour, too. When I have one to attend, I rely on Siri to get me there. It’s impressively good at parsing addresses: "Give me directions to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C." will get me to the White House. And I can always return home again with a simple "Take me home" request. If I’ll be back unexpectedly late, I can iMessage my coworkers with Siri, too: "iMessage Dan Moren that I’ll be back in another 20 minutes." New in iOS 6, Siri is much less strict about how precisely to phrase such instructions; it was far pickier in iOS 5, requiring more cue words.
The dinner hour
As dinner approaches, most nights, my wife tells me what she has cooked for that evening. Sometimes she comes into my office and says: “We’re going out for dinner tonight.” That’s when I turn to Siri, which in iOS 6 lets you get amusingly specific: "What are the best kid-friendly Italian restaurants within 5 miles?"
In central New Jersey, where I live, Siri knows plenty about some restaurants, little about others, and nothing at all about a few too many. If we lived somewhere more metropolitan, I probably could use Siri to make reservations, but out here very few restaurants support OpenTable. You can find some of your nearby options with a phrase like: "Where can I get a reservation for five people tonight at 6 p.m.?" Siri will then gather what it can from Yelp; if that service covers your area well, you’ll be in relatively good shape. But if it doesn’t, Siri can’t compensate for that subpar data.
Once the kids are asleep, my wife and I occasionally pick a movie to watch. Generally our choices are limited to what’s streaming on Netflix or HBO Go, but we let Siri help narrow our selections: "What’s a good comedy starring Jennifer Aniston?" More often, we use Siri to tell us whether a movie we're considering is worth watching: "Is the movie Rumor Has It any good?"
I have three young kids, so I only very rarely see a movie in an actual theater. When I do, though, I can now rely on Siri’s knowledge of what’s playing (which, like its knowledge of who stars in which movies, comes from Rotten Tomatoes). As with Yelp, the quality of the data you get from such queries will depend on how well Rotten Tomatoes covers your area. When I ask about movies playing near here, Siri performs beautifully. When a colleague in the San Francisco Bay Area asks for that information, Siri returns incomplete or erroneous data—more movies than the theater has screens, for example, or results for theaters too many miles away.
When it’s finally time to retire for the evening, I don't use Siri to set an alarm for the next morning. I have kids for that. On those rare occasions when I need to wake up even before they do, or when I'm traveling, I turn to Siri one last time: "Wake me at 5:30 a.m."
Throughout the day
I like launching apps with Siri, because it’s generally faster even than using Spotlight search. You can say "Launch Facebook," "Open Tweetbot," or "Play Angry Birds." If you want to open the camera, you can say "Take a picture," though that’s not necessarily faster than using the Camera lock-screen shortcut.
If you tell Siri "Do not disturb," it understands that you’re alluding to the new feature in iOS 6 to mute alerts and notifications, but it can’t enable that feature for you: Instead, it will helpfully provide a link to that setting.
Which is to admit that, as helpful as Siri is, I still have plenty of items on my Siri wish list that it hasn’t learned to handle. For example, you can’t use Siri to add or edit contacts, to go directly to specific websites, or to explicitly control third-party apps. And Siri still can’t toggle settings like Bluetooth.
As mentioned above, Siri flails when you try to ask about athletes or movie stars with unusual names it can’t transcribe. And its information is generally only as good as its providers can offer.
When Siri understands you on the first try, and when its answers are accurate, it’s awesome, and indistinguishable from magic. When it needs multiple tries to understand you, or when its answers are no good, Siri brings back unpleasant Newton memories.
That said, with Siri’s gains in iOS 6—not to mention back-end improvements that seem to have Siri understanding me better than ever—it has become an even more indispensable way for me to interact with my iOS devices. Despite its occasional shortcomings, I’m grateful that it’s there.
Upon first blush, Siri, the virtual assistant built into the iPhone 4S, is certainly impressive. You speak naturally, and Siri figures out what you’re trying to say, and then does just what you want it to. Well, most of the time, anyway.
The more you use Siri, though, the more obvious its shortcomings become. Here are a few improvements we’d like Apple to make in Siri 2.0—or whenever it decides to pull down that unsightly “beta” label.
Tweet Maker: When you attempt to post an update to Twitter via Siri, the assistant knows what you want it to do, but still declines: “I can’t send Tweets for you. Sorry about that.” Given that iOS 5 includes systemwide Twitter support, and given that Siri already understands the instruction—even though it refuses to follow through—this seems like an easy improvement to make. We’d also be delighted if Siri could take a cue from Tweet Speaker and read tweets from your timeline aloud—sometimes you just want to catch up on Twitter while you’re driving.
Notification Integration: We have high hopes that Siri will one day support some sort of integration with non-Apple apps (see below). But Cupertino could enable some degree of such support without requiring third-party developers to write even a single new line of code, if only Siri could read incoming notifications when you asked it to do so. Perhaps a single instruction to Siri—such as ”Read new notifications as they arrive”—could let you enable the mode when you’re in the car; “Stop reading new notifications” could turn the feature off again. That way, you could keep your eyes on the road and know the moment it was your turn in Words With Friends.
Email Reader: Sure, Siri can compose emails for you, and even display your unread emails (or an email search). But try to get Siri to read you even just one offer from a hapless overseas banker looking to cash you in on an inheritance, and you’ll be in for disappointment. Given that Siri can already read text messages, it seems like it wouldn’t be a big leap to add emails. Understandably, if someone’s sent you a ten-page email, or one that’s heavily formatted in HTML, speech might not be an ideal medium for consuming a message, but perhaps over a certain length, Siri could give you the option to just hear a preview. And who knows, maybe some day Siri will be smart enough to just summarize the salient details. It’d also be nice if Siri could be instructed to flag emails and to display your flagged messages.
Read It All: Speaking of reading your own data aloud to you, it’d be great if Siri could read details from other stock Apple apps, like Notes and appointments in Calendar, when you asked it do so. Siri says “I can’t read your notes to you.” Can’t, Siri? Or won’t?
Better Reminders: Reminding yourself to do things using Siri is quick and easy—but it could be easier. For one thing, you can’t use Siri to change reminders once you’ve created them, nor can you mark them as complete. And if you want to add milk, orange juice, and bananas to your shopping list, you have to do so separately, confirming each one in turn. But Siri has shown itself able to distinguish multiple items in the case of recipients for text messages and emails, so why not here too? It would be far easier to say “Add milk and bananas and orange juice to my shopping list.” Well, at least for the human doing the asking.
Launching Apps: It’s easy to launch the apps in your iPhone’s dock or on your main home screen. Once you load up more than a screenful or two of apps, however, finding the right one becomes a bit of a slog—even if you rely on Spotlight, it still means tapping out the first few characters of the name of the app you’re after. Right now, if you instruct Siri to “Launch Photos,” it responds: “I’d like to, but I’m not allowed to.” If Siri’s overlords in Cupertino could instead grant that permission, launching tucked-away apps would quickly become as easy as saying “1, 2, 3.” Though we’re not sure what app that would launch.Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza: If Siri transcribes you nearly perfectly, there’s no way to tell it just to tweak one small error; you must either edit manually, or start dictating the message all over again.
Easier Transcription Correction: If Siri gets the text of your reminder wrong after you dictate it, you can simply say, “Change that to ‘Buy milk,’” and Siri makes the correction. But if you dictate an email of more than a few sentences, and you see that Siri understood the gist of it, but mangled a few words and phrases, re-reciting the entire message feels tiresome. Sure, you can tap into Siri’s transcriptions and make the necessary edits, but ideally, you’d tell Siri just what to fix: “Change ‘elephant shoe’ to ‘I’ll have that, too.’”
Automatic Punctuation Transcription: Look, we’re not saying every item on our Siri wishlist is a simple matter of Apple pressing a few buttons—sometimes it’s a matter of it pressing a lot of buttons. When we dictate our punctuation-filled missives, our voices still change with the punctation. That is, when we say something like, “Are you sure question mark?”, our voices go up for “sure” and “question mark” alike. Apple’s engineers should work to expand Siri’s transcription abilities, so that it can translate such pitch changes to question marks, short pauses to commas, and longer ones to periods—contextually, of course. We fully admit that this entry seems like something out of science fiction, but then so does much of Siri’s current functionality. And, hey, we’re not asking for the moon: For example, Siri can ignore semicolons, because most people do too.3, 2, 1: Siri says it’s not allowed to create contacts. Siri, permission granted! Please?
Add and Edit Contacts: Ask Siri to add a number to a contact, or to create a brand new record in your iPhone’s address book, and it’ll balk: “Sorry, I’m not allowed to create contacts.” Most of the time, Siri can’t edit them either—although you can tweak relationship data for your own contact record by saying things like “Gregory House is my physician.” Those tasks can be cumbersome, since they often require so much tapping. Whereas simply saying “add firstname.lastname@example.org as Gregory House’s email address” takes just a second or two.
Default Address: Speaking of Contacts, the iPhone and Siri should provide a way to set an email address as a default for a given contact. Right now, when we say, “Make an appointment for 1 p.m. tomorrow with Jason Snell,” Siri inevitably asks which of Jason’s addresses to use. Invite multiple people to an event, and you’ll spend a while confirming each of their addresses, which somewhat lessens Siri’smagical nature. We need an option that says “Always use Jason’s work email address unless I specify otherwise.”
Safari Surfing: Siri can’t yet open an exact URL (“Go to www.macworld.com”), or launch URLs from saved bookmarks (“Go to Macworld.”). Instead, we have to tell Siri to search for Macworld, and then interact with our Web browser. For an intelligent agent that has the whole Internet at its disposal, that seems silly.
Third-Party Integration: We’ll admit, this request is a trickier one. For Apple to truly allow third-party developers to integrate their apps with full-blown Siri support won’t be simple. You’d need a system for determining which apps should handle specific requests. For example, if you said “Check me in here,” should Siri hand that request off to the Foursquare or Facebook app on your phone? And if you want to change which app handles such requests later, then what do you do? These are solveable problems, though it’s understandable that Apple will almost surely choose to tread lightly if it goes down this path. But you only need think of the convenience of asking Siri by how much the Red Sox are beating the Yankees to get the idea of how great this integration could be.
More Appless Third-Party Integration: Siri users already benefit from its integration with services like Yelp and Wolfram Alpha, even if they don’t have their apps installed. Surely there are more services Apple should add: OpenTable for making reservations at the restaurants Siri finds, a movie showtimes service, a TV programming guide, and, of course, integration with WebMD for all the medical needs that Dr. House just can’t cover—“Yes, Siri, I know it’s not lupus.”
Media Savvy: While Siri’s advantage over iOS’s earlier Voice Control feature is clear when it comes to playing back music—for example, Siri can summon a particular song, not just an album, artist, or playlist—there’s still room for improvement. For example, tell Siri to play a track and it will graciously oblige, but once that song’s over, the music will simply die. Instead, let us tell Siri to play a song and then shuffle music onwards from there. And while we’re at it, why doesn’t Siri understand a command like “Play the latest episode of the Sesame Street Podcast”? Is it making some sort of judgment about our podcast-listening habits?
TV Talk: We all enjoy screaming at our TV every once in a while, whether it be because we’re watching our favorite sports team do something stupid or because that idiot insists on checking out that mysterious noise in the basement. What if we could channel that vocalization into something productive? Like telling Siri to mute our Apple TV when the phone rings. Or using it to search for a title on Netflix or the iTunes Store without having to rely on slowly entering text with an Apple Remote. Or telling it to play the latest episode of a podcast. The iPhone already makes a great Apple TV accessory; letting Siri into the mix would make a good thing even better.