Siri Goes to Grad School

I’m guessing you’re familiar with the iOS “personal assistant,” Siri.  If you don’t know what it is, it’s basically a way to tell your iOS device to do things by talking in natural language.  You can ask Siri to “Remind me to…” or “Make a note that…” and things like that.  This feature was first unveiled in 2011 as part of iOS 5, and launched exclusively on the iPhone 4s.  Nowadays, it works on almost all iOS devices.  The idea is pretty cool, but in reality it just works OK.  Apple tried to portray that you could just ask Siri anything, as you would a real person, and Siri would be smart enough to figure out what you meant.  In reality, however, Siri breaks things down in categories, just like any computer does.  (If you’re curious as to what exactly Siri can – and can’t – do, tap the little question mark button in the lower left corner of the Siri screen.)  Looking at the long list of categories makes it seem fairly robust, but in practice, Siri can be pretty limited.  If Siri can’t figure out what specific task you want it to perform (creating a reminder, making a note, etc.) it basically just plugs what you said into a search engine.  This works as a “catch all,” and for some reason this sort of bothers me.  I feel like Siri should do a better job of answering your questions directly, instead of letting Bing do it (if I wanted to do a web search, I could have just gone and done one).  However, I have a solution to Siri’s limited knowledge: allow third-party Siri integration.

Third-party Siri integration would allow other apps to create their own commands for Siri to control their app.  This would be great even for basic things, like Spotify.  When I’m listening to music in the preloaded Music app, I can ask Siri to go to the next track or play a different artist.  When I’m listening to Spotify, Siri can’t even pause the music, let alone skip tracks.  I think this is really stupid, especially since Spotify’s controls show up in Control Center and on the lock screen, just like the Music app.  If Spotify was allowed to program Siri, Siri could skip tracks and even play specific songs or artists.

But third-party Siri integration could be so much more powerful than this.  When Apple allowed third-party Notification Center widgets, they allowed developers to be really creative.  Widgets like Yahoo Weather‘s really weren’t that surprising, but PCalc‘s was.  PCalc gives you a fully-functional calculator right there in Notification Center.  Frankly, it’s fantastic, and I don’t think anyone saw it coming.  I’d love to see what crazy ideas developers think of (that I never would have) for Siri integration.  (I just hope Apple doesn’t choose to shut down the movers and shakers, like they almost did with PCalc.  Apple essentially said that PCalc’s functionality was too complex for Notification Center.  Fortunately, after an ensuing user uproar, Apple backed down.  It’s silly that Apple would open up great new functionality for developers to innovate, then tell them they’re not allowed to do so.)

The only problem with third-party Siri integration is that some apps would abuse it (whether purposefully or not).  This is probably the main thing holding Apple back from doing something like this.  I for one, however, am more than willing to take the bad with the good here, and I don’t think I’m the only one with that view.  I hope that Apple will continue to learn to let go of its precious little “perfect” operating system in order to allow developers more freedom to innovate.  Fingers crossed we see some super cool Siri stuff coming next year with iOS 9.  ••

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