Elgan: Getting Serious about Siri

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

Apple's new Siri virtual assistant feature in the iPhone 4s is already causing controversy and dividing the gadget-loving universe.

Siri lovers, including Yours Truly, say Siri is fun and useful and represents the future of machine-human interfaces.

Siri haters say the feature is a novelty act, a copy of Android Voice Actions and generally useless for actual work.

Of course, everyone is entitled to use or not use any technology. Some people, including Google Android chief Andy Rubin, think cell phones should be used for talking to other people, not for talking to the phone.

That's fine. It's a free country.

But I think the naysayers are wrong about the importance and impact of Siri and its ilk. Talking virtual assistants are revolutionary and will prove extremely popular.

More than that, they're incredibly useful and powerful -- especially if you use my three Pro Tips at the bottom of this column.

Why I'm biased in favor of technologies like Siri

I stand by my claims and predictions about Siri. But I also have to admit a bias in favor of voice-based personal assistants, and for two reasons.

First, any reader of my column in this space knows I've been trying to "roll my own" virtual assistant for years.

I've been testing and using various services that do part of what Siri does, including Jott, Vlingo, reQall and most recently Dial2Do, and have written about them extensively.

Most of these involve making a phone call, and interacting with a virtual assistant on the other end of the line. For example, until last week, whenever I wanted to add something to my calendar or send myself an email reminder, I would hit the speed dial for Dial2Do. A female voice that sounds something like Siri would answer, and ask: "What would you like to do?" I would say either "calendar" or "reminder," then say the information I wanted to to be acted upon.

I've also been a heavy user of services like Bing 411 or the now defunct GOOG-411. With those, you call a virtual assistant, and ask for the names of businesses. The services send you a link to map directions or connect your call.

And finally, I love dictation and voice-command software, and am a heavy user of Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Siri is vastly superior to any and all of the solutions I've been trying to cobble together all these years.

The second reason I'm biased in favor of virtual assistant technology on cell phones is my eyesight. I'm over 40 (OK, WAY over 40), and I need reading glasses while using a computer or reading a book, and especially to see the tiny text on my iPhone.

However, I don't have or wear my glasses while driving, working out at the gym, running, walking around town or shopping, cooking or cleaning up or while in bed.

Siri enables me to play music and podcasts, send and receive emails and texts, give myself reminders, make appointments, get directions and all the rest without needing glasses or even taking the phone out of my pocket.

I don't understand how anyone can fail to understand how great this is.

Why Apple is taking Siri so seriously

Rubin's recent comment, essentially showing a personal bias against Siri-like technology (even though Google engineers are working hard to out-do Siri with their own technology), reveals a breathtaking absence of vision about the future of computing. And it's one that I'm sure many others at Google do not share.

As I've said many times in this space, the future of all computing is iPad-like touch tablets. Within a few years, you'll trade in your old-and-busted WIMP PC (WIMP stands for windows, icons, menus and pointing devices), and embrace something similar to a giant iPad, set at a drafting table angle on your desk.

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?"

What most users don't know is that all this can be communicated in one go. Here's the best way to send this same message:

User: "Email Deven about Halloween and say I'm having a Halloween party, and hope you can come!" Siri: "Here's the email message to Deven. Ready to send it?"

The formula is: "Email about and say ."

You can also optimize replies. When Deven is looking at this message, for example, he can say: "Reply Sounds great. I'll be there." Boom! Done!

You can even optimize the finding of emails by specifying the sender and the day that message was sent. For example, Siri understands: "Find that email from my mom yesterday."

You'll save a lot of time in the future by spending a little time now truly mastering what Siri can do with email.

Pro Tip 3: Be a dictator with Siri's hidden Dragon

The new iPhone 4S not only has Siri, but also Nuance's Dragon Dictation software baked right in.

The phone's keyboard has a microphone button. When you press it, you're in dictation mode until you press the Done button.

By mastering this technology, you can save yourself a lot of time -- and typing. Here's what you need to know.

First, you can just say the punctuation and formatting you want, and the software will add it for you. For example, you can say:

"Hi comma John period new paragraph I just wanted to all caps THANK YOU all caps off for the nice gift period new paragraph Best regards comma Mike."

Second, unlike with Siri, you can take your time with dictation. It will wait. And you can stop and start, pause and reflect and write emails and notes as long as you like.

There's no question about it. The naysayers are saying nay to the wrong technology.

Voice-based virtual assistant technology is here to stay. It's not a gimmick, but a powerful and useful new interface that can transform how you live and work.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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