Hands on with Siri
UPDATE Dec 9: I've now had my own iPhone 4S for a couple of weeks (supplied by Telecom and used with Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees SIM cards - see today's print edition of NBR for some speed tests).
Like Seeby Woodhouse and Chris Quin (see comments below), I've found Siri can handle my Kiwi accent - despite Apple's official development effort only extending to US, UK and Australian accents.
But only around 80% or 90% of the time.
When Siri works, she's magic.
But there are a couple of performance issues in everyday use, which I strike quite often.
Any background noise severely degrades Siri's ability to understand me.
And poor cellular (or wi-fi) connection in any given spot tends to see Siri give up (for however simple a query, Siri sends data to Apple servers, which process a response then send it back to your phone). Even when you're on a clear connection, you have to wait a couple of beats for a response. Two or three seconds is nothing, really, but it's also all the time it takes to open, say, your phone's calendar to see your next appointment time for yourself.
Siri automatically activates when you hold your iPhone 4S to your ear - a nice touch for those who don't want to look like a knob by talking to their phone in public. Nice touch. In theory. In reality, I'm always pulling my iPhone 4S from my ear to see if my query's being processed or the connection's timed out.
But the main drawback is simply that Apple hasn't partnered with anyone locally for information or reviews. So unlike the US, we ask Siri "Where's the nearest ATM?" or "What's the best Indian restaurant nearby?"
Such queries throw up this screen:
I asked entrepreneur Rod Druy how much he was using Siri.
"I'm using it more and more. I feels like they have cracked the voice interface," he replied.
Me, to be honest, I'm really not using Siri much. My two killer apps are to call people (although that's nothing new; basic voice commands already featured in previous iPhones, and most species of smartphone), and selecting tracks when I've got Siri docked to my car stereo.
Siri can be used to open, address then dictate an email, but doesn't want to draw names from my chosen address book (Google Apps). And while Siri's transcription abilities are pretty good - and she can get better over time as you correct words - unless you're already wise to the ways of voice-to-text programmes it's clumsy trying to insert punctuation into you're everyday speech.
Siri is at here sharpest with common requests ("When's my next appointment?") and common requests, like "What's the weather today?"
For general knowledge queries, Siri can tap WolframAlpha. This can lead to impressive responses, but the more involved your query, the less certain your odds. I got sensible responses less than half the time.
This is a fascinating area. We're going to see more natural language speech commands from all the smartphone makers. But for now, it's just not quite there for the Kiwi accent, and the lack of a local partner for business and service information undermines Siri's usefulness.
ABOVE: Siri feeds all queries - even basic diary requests that could in theory be handled on the handset - to Apple servers in the US. This can lead to annoying lag if you've got bad cellphone or wi-fi reception.
Apple: Siri not developed for Kiwi accent - but she can learn
UPDATE Nov 3: The latest in the ongoing "Will Siri be able to understand the New Zilund accent?" saga:
I've just spoken to an Apple Australia-New Zealand rep Vispi Bhopti, who confirmed the iPhone 4S voice command feature has been developed for five "dialects": US English, UK English, Australian English, German and French.
His first point was to emphasise that - wherever you are, and whatever your accent - Siri is a beta (or trial) product, not a finished piece of software.
His second: while Siri has not been optimised for a Kiwi speakers, it can be "taught" and should get better over time for any accent.
If Siri is unsure of a voice command, the transcribed text is underlined in blue (in the same manner as a txt or email typo) and you can choose from options to correct it.
A number of readers asked if Siri's default dialect can be changed. It can. iIf you're, say, a UK ex-pat in NZ, you can change your locally bought Siri to the UK option.
The learning feature would also help given even in "official" Siri countries, regional accents varied - and even styles of speech. Some Australians slurred their words Mr Bhopti said. Others were more articulate.
Mr Bhopti was unaware of any Apple trial involving New Zealand speakers; he was keen to hear how NBR readers had gone (check out the experience of two below).
Lastly, Apple has just put up a Siri Q&A. Read it here.
The FAQ says Siri is designed for the iPhone 4S's A5 dual core processor - an oblique reference to attempts to jail-break the software to work on the older 4S, which runs on an A4, single core chip.
UPDATE Nov 2: Tech entrepreneur Seeby Woodhouse is another early iPhone 4S buyer (he picked up the handset in Sydney).
So how is he finding the Siri voice command feature? Like Telecom's Chris Quin (below) Mr Woodhosue has a quite middle-of-the-road Kiwi accent).
The Orcon founder told NBR Siri, "Does work better if I put on an Aussie accent, but it's pretty flawless. I'm just floored by how much it understands. It's amazing."
READ ALSO: iPhone 4S for NZ from November 11
UPDATE Oct 31: Chris Quin, chief executive of Telecom's Gen-i services division, has become one of the first locals to get an iPhone 4S (there's still no word from Apple on the new model's NZ release date; the Gen-i boss bought his overseas).
So how does the much-vaunted Siri voice-command feature hand a local speaker - especially given the Gen-i CEO has what could be termed an every-man New Zealand accent?
The word from Mr Quin: "Siri is fine. You just need to talk slowly and clearly. Don't mumble."
(And slow seemed to be the order of the day at the October 5 US launch. One live-blogging audience member noted that while the voice commands worked, iOS chief Scott Forstall "has to talk to the machine slowly, like you would to a child or a foreign language speaker.")
And is there any significance in a Telecom exec showing off an iPhone 4S? (Only Vodafone is an official carrier.)
Is Mr Quin just being a fan boy, or signalling that his company will continue its aggressive play for Apple users? (Telecom Retail sells iPhone and iPad-compatible micro-SIMs and a set of iPad-dedicated data plans; Gen-i will find an iPhone to sell [from mumble mumble] if a client wants to buy one). You don't need an AI to answer that one.about failure.
Oct 14: Siri, the voice command personal assistant that comes with Apple's iPhone 4S, has been compared to HAL, the artificially intelligent computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Inevitably, one user - Joshua Joshua Topolsky - delivered his 4S the movie's signature command, "Open the pod bay doors."
It answered with the pleasing:
And for a practical, business-orientated take on the iPhone 4S's voice commands, check out John Gruber's review for Daring Fireball here.
Short story: it seems pretty amazing.
But it's still unknown when the iPhone 4S will ship here, and how it will handle the New Zilund accent.
A snatch of Mr Gruber's commentary:
I asked, “When was my last haircut?”, and it found that appointment from a month ago. I told Siri, “Play something by the Rolling Stones” and it played a random Stones song (“Gimme Shelter”, from Let It Bleed). I interrupted and said, “Play ‘Some Girls’ by the Rolling Stones”, and Siri played just that song.
I was out running errands today, walking through the city. I remembered, a mile away from home, that a screw had fallen out of my wife’s favorite eyeglasses over the weekend, and that she was waiting for me to fix them. Walking down a city street, I said, “Remind me to fix Amy’s glasses when I get home.”1 Half an hour later, within a few doors of our house, the reminder went off.
The cringe factor
Beyond Siri's ability to handle accents, there's a social issue: who wants to talk to their phone in public?
Mr Gruber notes Siri is activated when you put the iPhone 4S to your ear - so when you speak voice commands, it looks like you're making a regular call. Nice touch.
I'm not sure any Australian has said "strewth" since 1957, but Siri acquits herself well in this Aussie accent test, which I'm sure will be the first of many.