Siri: The beginning of the end of computers

I hadn't planned to, but I ended up lining up in the wee hours a couple weeks back for an iPhone 4S. It was more a father-son bonding thing than a geek thing, to be honest.

I hadn’t planned to, but I ended up lining up in the wee hours a couple weeks back for an iPhone 4S.

It was more a father-son bonding thing than a geek thing, to be honest. But once the Vancouver media descended on the scene and started interviewing us, well, I felt compelled to buy one, just to show it off for the TV cameras if nothing else.

And I’m kind of glad I did. The iPhone 4S packs a key technology that clearly demonstrates the future of how we’ll use computers: a service called Siri lets you do things on your iPhone using just your voice.

In concept Siri isn’t that significant.

We’ve theoretically been able to operate our desktop computers with our voices for quite some time.

Instead, Apple’s true achievement in Siri is twofold:

First, it pretty much works, unlike most voice services that have come before (including those from Apple).

Second, it’s available away from your desk and it’s baked in. Voice services matter a lot more to the average person when you’re mobile and they’re easy to access.

With Siri, Apple has effectively reset the compass on the future direction of personal computing.

Instead of continuing along the path of pushing pixels across glass screens, Siri demonstrates that we can do without devices altogether.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s a quick summary of some things you can do with your voice using Siri.

You can transcribe and send text messages and emails, or initiate and answer voice calls.

You can have Siri play music for you, or look up videos on YouTube.

Siri will perform web searches for whatever you ask it to, or even directly respond to fairly complex queries (like, “How old is the Earth?”).

You can have Siri transcribe notes.

Siri will even schedule calendar events and reminders.

A lot of Siri’s most compelling abilities – primarily related to location – aren’t available in Canada yet, and it doesn’t do too well with the Canuck vernacular (it doesn’t understand our trademark “eh,” for example).

But what Siri does, it does reasonably well and I’ve found myself surprisingly hands-off of my new handheld device.

There is a tremendous amount of abstraction involved in using a computer.

Icons, windows, mice, folders, screens, and apps are just a few of the metaphors we need to constantly interpret and interact with.

Most of our goals are very simple, however, and so computers too often become obfuscation machines that run defence on our achieving them.

Voice-driven services like Siri are compelling because they remove that artifice and make processes simple.

Take scheduling an event on a calendar.

“I want to schedule a meeting with Frank and Joe this afternoon at Marty’s Diner for a bite to eat and talk about the last episode of Walking Dead.”

Now imagine getting that set up on a computer.

You’d have to start up your computer, open the calendar application, find the time and date you want to set the event up for, look up the names and email addresses of the participants, and then type in some notes.

For the average user, that’s a tough slog through a deep trough of abstract ideas and misplaced visual metaphors.

Using voice, there’s barely any need to interface with a computer. Instead, you just plainly state your goal.

The system might ask you a few questions for clarification like, “What time this afternoon?” or “Do you mean Frank Smith or Frank Johnston?”

As I’ve used Siri I’ve begun to recognize that the computer – both as an interactive interface and as a psychological environment – is a sometimes impenetrable barrier between me and the things I want to do.

It turns out that getting the computer out of computing can be a liberating experience.

So compelling has been experience with Siri been, I’ve found myself yearning for voice-driven capabilities on a broader scope.

Like, “Hey, House, can you crank the heat up in this room a couple of degrees, please?”

Or, “Turn the lights on over the sink, please.”

Or, “Preheat the oven to 425, and turn down that back burner before the pasta boils over.”

Sure, we’ve seen all this before.

In science fiction movies.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve tasted it in reality.

Siri is like a free sampler of the future, a trailer for your life in 10 years.

In its current state, Siri is far from perfect and only deals with a few relatively mundane aspects of your life.

But Siri demonstrates that we don’t need knobs or dials or mice or keyboards or pretty pictures on a screen.

Heck, Siri shows us we don’t even need devices at all.

Imagine an aurally enabled house.

“Turn all the lights off in the basement.”

“Lock all the doors at 9 tonight, please.”

“Let me know when the dryer stops.”

“Start my car tomorrow morning at 8.”

“Turn on the Canucks game.”

“If the Canucks start losing, turn the game off.”

Siri is just on an iPhone right now, but it certainly won’t stay there.

History has shown that when Apple introduces a new technology, they commit big and plan to change our world with it.

We’ll start talking to Siri and its ilk on more devices and in more environments.

Then we’ll all look back and sort of giggle about the days we actually had to touch a computer to use it.

And we’ll sure as hell belly laugh about the fact we used to line up all night for the damn things.

Andrew Robulack is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer and communications technology consultant specializing in the internet and mobile devices.

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