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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The Unrealized Potential of the Mac App Store

Pretty much all smartphone platforms have their own app store.  This provides a unified place to find and purchase applications for one’s device.  This is really nice; it makes finding software easy.  Apple pioneered this approach with the iPhone App store (which launched in 2008), and followed with the Mac App Store (in 2011).  When I first got a Mac last spring, I was really excited to use the Mac App Store.  My other computer runs Windows 7, which doesn’t have any sort of app store (the closest thing I have there is CNET).  It sounded really great to not only have a unified place to find apps, but also a unified way to update them (similar to iOS).  In practice, however, I haven’t used the Mac App Store much.  The reason?  The selection is pretty disappointing.  There just aren’t many good apps there.  The couple of times I’ve gone to the Mac App Store looking for something I’ve come away disappointed.  Subdividing this problem of selection, I’ve determined two major reasons why the Mac App Store has such as small assortment of apps.

1.  Sandboxing
Sandboxing is required for all apps on the Mac App Store.  Sandboxing is a term that many people have never heard used in a software context (only in a children’s playground one).  Basically, sandboxing means that each program is completely isolated, in its own “sandbox,” if you will.  The benefit of this is that apps can’t meddle with other apps.  For example, Microsoft Word can’t go over and, say, wreck Firefox’s awesome castle.  This sounds good in principle, until you realize that apps can’t work together either.  Maybe Firefox wanted Word to help with his castle.  The final problem is that apps can’t use common operating system resources that other apps might use too.  Microsoft Word wouldn’t be allowed to play on the swings, because it might hog them and not give Firefox a turn.  Bad analogies aside, sandboxing is something Apple is big on.  They are only now starting to take a step back from sandboxing in iOS with extensions.  Going back to the Mac, many apps simply can’t make themselves available on the Mac App Store, since they require advanced functionality that they can’t have while sandboxed.  This is really a shame, and it means I only have two App Store apps (Microsoft OneDrive and Apple’s Xcode) actually installed on my Mac right now.

2.  Pricing
This is just a pet peeve of mine.  I (like most people, I assume) like free software.  I almost never pay for software; there’s almost always a free alternative out there.  It may not work quite as well, but at least it was free.  The Mac App Store is not a good place to find free software.  For example, the other day I was looking for a way to change the date taken in a photo.  I don’t have iPhoto, and since Apple’s going to replace it with a (free!) “Photos” app in the next year, there’s no reason for me to spend $15 on it.  Searching online, I found a program called “Photo Date Changer.”  This program basically exists just to change the date on photos.  I thought, “Perfect, just what I need.”  This program is on the Mac App Store.  $8.  There is no way I am going to pay $8 for a program that just changes the date on a photo.  I have a theory as to why Mac App Store apps are more expensive.  The reason is that Macs are more expensive.  I guess developers assume that someone willing to spend more money on a Mac is willing to spend more money on software.  I, however, am not.

In conclusion, I hope the Mac App Store gets better.  Maybe Apple will start to open up sandboxing as they have done in iOS.  Maybe, as time goes on, more and more apps will become available on the store.  I hope this happens, but I’m not sure that it’s going to.  Fortunately, there’s always CNET.  ••