Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Apple Does It Again

I am never surprised by how silly, short-sighted, and short-attention-spanned people can be, but I am constantly amazed by Apple managing to fire up everyone with things which should really elicit only a "meh... not again?!".

First, there was FaceTime. If you were born yesterday and on top of that had your ability to read up on recent history surgically removed at birth, you'd think that video calling was invented by Apple, and if it wasn't that Apple's implementation limited to its own products and an internet connection was bee's knees the world has never seen. If, on the other hand, you managed to wrestle yourself from the Reality Distortion Field, you may have noticed video calling was available on 3G mobile phones for almost a decade, was not limited to a single manufacturer, and was available anywhere you had a connection to the mobile network, i.e. wherever your phone worked at all. Meh, indeed.

Now, with the latest iPhone 4S (and I think other iPhones which can be upgraded to the latest iOS 5), we have been again showered by Apple's magnanimity and, like manna from Heaven, have been given... wait for it...


What is Siri, and why is it so hot at the moment?

As expected, it is much easier to answer the first part of the question: Siri is Apple's version of a voice control application for an iPhone. You tell Siri what you want to do, and it does it - provided it can figure out what you meant. Apparently, it works quite well, and can perform some quite clever actions. And that's all fine, good, and commendable. Nothing against doing things better.

The problem is, however, that it's one thing to do something better than it has been done before (which can only be praised), but another thing entirely when, reading reports and reviews, one gets an impression that it is, well, not necessarily the very first time in history it's been done (although some reports do leave you wondering), then that anything that went before was total rubbish, useless, or worse. Also, same as with FaceTime, one can easily get an impression Siri is a saviour of the consumer and revolutionises the way in which we use our kit.

Well, for those who had the surgery I described in the second paragraph, voice control of mobile phones has been available for even longer than video calling. It didn't even require an internet connection like Siri. Yes, you guessed it, it was built in. I should know. I used it, and more importantly, was marginally involved in the implementation of it way back in 2001 or so.

Oh, don't get me wrong. It was 2001, and it wasn't as polished as Siri is today (and for that matter, not just Siri: there are, in fact, similar applications for most any phone you care to name - and your PC). You also had to train it to your voice a bit more than you have to these days (if at all). But still, it was there, in poxy little GSM phones of yore. You could say "call Mum", and it would. Magic! But Apple Magic? Sorry, no.

To finish on a brighter note: I somehow suspect that Siri (and it's cousins on other phones), just like FaceTime before it, will die a quiet death of all technology fads that sound good only on paper - and even then only if there is a hype on the scale of what Apple can still whip up. Because, when was the last time you saw someone doing a FaceTime call? And for that matter, when was it last you ever saw anyone talking to their phone, rather than on it?


Also similar to FaceTime - and any video calling, for that matter - the user giving voice commands to his phone either looks a dork (take phone out of pocket; hold phone in front of face; tell phone "call Mum"), or is a dork (hands-free scenario: talk to a passer-by "call Mum"; talk to more passers-by "Hello Mum, you look lovely today!"). These are precisely the reasons why original video calling (a must have for a 3G phone at the time - we spent inordinate amount of time making it work well) and the original voice control (talking at your phone in public) never caught on. Technology did improve. Our needs, habits, and mores as people haven't, and I doubt they will for either FaceTime or Siri.