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.  ••

Why Tesla’s Open Patents Will Help the World… and Tesla

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2014


Several weeks ago, the recently spotlighted Tesla Motors (famous for making high-end electric cars) made a very unusual announcement.  They said that they will not sue anyone who, “in good faith,” uses their technology in electric vehicles.  This is a hugely different approach from nearly every other big business we see today.  In our trigger-happy lawsuit world, companies patent everything they possible can, fearing that someone out there will rip them off.  However, sharing ideas is the fastest way for people to innovate, instead of forcing them to reinvent someone else’s wheel every time they want to make a product.

Tesla has acknowledged that there are not very many electric cars being sold today.  Tesla wants the world to move away from gasoline, and move towards environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient electric vehicles.  They want other companies to be able to create quality electric cars, so they’re giving them the tools to do so.  I applaud Tesla for using their own intellectual property to support a cause in which they believe.  Tesla didn’t have to share their innovations; they could have kept them to themselves, to try to make people buy their products (and not someone else’s).  By sharing their technology, Tesla is giving a huge engineering boost to anyone who wants it.

As noble as this is, you might think that Tesla is shooting themselves in the foot.  Not at all.  Sure, some people may have been turned off by Tesla’s high prices.  These people may instead by an electric car made by Ford, or GM.  These are potentially lost sales for Tesla.  However, some people may have been turned off from a Tesla car simply because it’s electric.  Tesla does offer free electricity for life at their Supercharger stations nationwide.  But if an individual doesn’t live near many stations, they won’t buy a Tesla.  Fortunately, Tesla has also said that it is willing to partner with other car manufacturers and let them use Tesla’s stations (splitting the operating costs, of course).  This puts Tesla into an enormously positive Catch-22: the more people that buy electric cars, the more charging stations there will be.  The more charging stations, the more people will buy electric cars.

Tesla (as a group of environmentally-conscious people) will benefit from their patent release when they see other manufacturers making electric cars.  Tesla (as a business) will benefit as electric cars become more and more mainstream.  Now I’m not saying Tesla is selfish.  I’m saying they’re ingenious.  The great minds at Tesla have found a perpetual win-win, promoting environmentally friendly transport, and also making some money while they’re at it.  Hey, no one ever said the good guy couldn’t benefit from his actions.  ••

Technology for Everything

Technology is everywhere these days.  It’s not just in phones and tablets, but in all kinds of other devices.  There’s so much innovation going on right now, and technology is being applied to more and more things that have never had it before.  That being said, I’ve selected three cool products that really stand out.  These are certainly good products, but more importantly, they are unique, innovative ones.  Smartphones came first, but pretty soon, all kinds of things will be smart.  Things like what, you ask?  Here’s my three picks.

Runtastic Libra Smart Scale
1.  Runtastic Libra Smart Scale
Price: $116

What is it?
This scale doesn’t just measure weight.  It also measures body fat, calculates BMI, and syncs via Bluetooth.  It seems everything syncs via Bluetooth these days (especially health related devices).  I think this is a good thing, partly just because I’m a nerd and I love a good graph.  But honestly, I’m not sure the fancy visualization is always the point.  Sometimes, just getting that data in front of our faces, and often, is enough to drive it through our heads.  The more we think about something, the more likely we are to act upon it.

94Fifty Smart Basketball
2. 94Fifty Smart Basketball
Price: $249

What is it?
This basketball is chock full of sensors.  As you shoot, it analyzes your shots.  When you’re done, you sync with your phone via Bluetooth (see what I mean about Bluetooth?).  This data allows you to improve your shooting skills, no expensive training coach required.

Nest Smart Thermostat
3. Nest Smart Thermostat
Price: $249

What is it?
Sure, most thermostats can be programmed, but does your thermostat learn?  When you change the temperature at the same time several days in a row, the Nest remembers.  It figures out your schedule – when you wake up, when you go to work, etc. – and remembers your favorite temperatures for each time.  The Nest can tell when you leave the house as part of its goal to save you energy by only using heat and air conditioning when you need it.  More importantly, it strives to make reaching that point as hassle-free as possible.  The Nest also allows you to control it with your smartphone.  Say you’re coming home from work early, and you want the Nest to warm up your house early too.  A few taps later, and you’re ready to come home to a toasty house!  ••