Pick up a new “resolutionary” iPad this Friday and one thing you won’t be able to do is ask it when the world will end (hint: not in 2012), what the meaning of life is, or whether Google makes better phones. That’s because it doesn’t include Siri, Apple’s ballyhooed speak-and-it-responds app for the iPhone 4S. Why not? Because Apple wants to sell you an iPhone, right? That’s what most will tell you anyway, and it’s true on a crude economic level. But there’s a more nuanced reason: Siri’s not ready for the iPad. Not yet.
The new iPad does have voice recognition of a kind: It’ll take dictation if you’d rather speak an email or document or whatever else instead of typing it out. It won’t do so with perfect first-time accuracy, but then what does? Even Siri sometimes has trouble understanding what you’re saying.
But why leave Siri off the iPad when Apple’s proven the technology on a device that’s already six months old and, in terms of processing speed, technically inferior to the new iPad? Why omit one of your PR-friendly crown jewel services, when competitors like Google are no doubt racing to come up with even more intelligent and flexible alternatives for Android devices (possibly including tablets)?
It’s probably no more complex than this: iPad users, even ones who drag Apple’s tablet around with them, don’t always have their iPads handy, e.g. when driving, walking, jogging, shopping, at the movies, watching a play, at a restaurant and so forth. Do you slide your iPad from your magical file-folder-sized pockets to do any of that? Maybe you do, but I’m betting most don’t. Most probably use a phone-sized device on the go. And when you’re on the go, you’re probably using Siri for pretty directed stuff: asking directions, conjuring entertainment recommendations, checking the weather, that sort of thing. Siri has to know enough to answer in the ballpark, but the rest is really just novelty, right? Fun as it is to joke around with Siri, I’m betting most people do when they first get the iPhone 4S and maybe at get-togethers to amuse friends, but for the most part they’re asking functional questions. We’re just more likely to ask “Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?” to get a real, actionable answer, than “What’s the meaning of life?” to receive a mildly amusing but otherwise shallow (and if you ask over and over, one-dimenionally repetitive) one.
With an iPad, by contrast, you might be sitting down at work or home to check email, your social networking sites, or browse the web. Or you might be a kid settling in for a marathon info-dive, the way one might with a book or a game or an encyclopedia. The requirements of a voice recognition app in these “settled” scenarios are much different than when you’re out and about. Even Siri, in her less-than-infinite wisdom, can hardly keep up with the sort of natural language interplay you’d find desirable, ultimately, if you wanted to hold forth spontaneously, without speaking in short, clipped sentences or limiting yourself to elementary concepts. In these scenarios, what we need is a truly semantic application, capable of understanding long-form sentences, that can “get to know” us over time and adjust to our personality inflections or eccentricities.
My guess, and I could be wildly off base here because it’s also conflated with “my hope,” is that Apple’s working on something more sophisticated for the iPad in terms of natural language interchange. Probably not this iPad, i.e. the one out this Friday, but I assume Apple feels the same way I do about the distinctions between phones and tablets when it comes to chatting with these devices, and that they’re not merely trying to sell more iPhones. After all, this is a company with nearly $100 billion in the bank. They’re on some level thinking about the bottom line, as all companies must, but they didn’t get to where they are today by slavishly following the bouncing decimal point. I think they know Siri (or whatever it’s called) for the iPad has to be different, not just to be different, but because — as Steve Jobs believed — form and function need to be intertwined.
(Note: If you really, really want a Siri-like interface for your new iPad this Friday, minus what I’ll call Siri’s “quip support,” see Dragon Go! for iPad, made by the same folks behind Siri’s voice recognition tech.)