4 Questions For Siri

4 Questions For Siri

I was the biggest Siri fanboy ever both before Apple launched the iPhone 4S with Siri integration, and immediately after.

For example, I wrote this in September and this in October. I was certain that Siri was going to change everything.

But since then, it’s slowly dawning on me that Siri isn’t what I thought it would be, at least not yet. Worse, I’ve been confused by events and facts related to Siri that have emerged since the iPhone 4S launched.

So here’s what I would like to ask Siri.

1. Siri: Why do you call yourself “beta”?

Companies aren’t supposed to sell beta software for money, or use beta software as a major selling point for an integrated product. Because if you are, what does “beta” mean?

The word “beta” as it relates to software means: still in the testing phase, and not ready for the general market. For years, companies have released “beta” software free of charge so that volunteers could test it and help the company find bugs before the beta program ended and the general release began. It was only after the beta program ended that customers were charged for the product.

Years ago, I called out Google for monetizing Gmail while continuing to call it “beta.” Gmail was in “beta” for five years! But that didn’t stop them from peppering it with advertising and making millions of dollars from it.

Google tried to have it both ways. You, as a user, were expected to participate in their monetization scheme, allow your email to be scanned by computers and allow yourself to be influenced by the resulting contextual advertising. But you were not expected to criticize it. “Hey, it’s just beta!” Eventually, Google found that their have-it-both-ways beta labeling was causing hesitation among corporate customers, so they dropped it.

I slammed Google then, and I’m slamming Apple now.

Apple is pushing Siri hard as a major selling point — perhaps THE major selling point — for their biggest and most profitable product, the iPhone. Slick, expensive TV commercials create a totally unrealistic picture of how well Siri works in order to convince customers to buy an iPhone 4S.

But once the money has been spent, and consumers learn that Siri doesn’t work as advertised, Apple hides behind the old Gmailesque “Hey, it’s “beta!” It’s not finished. Don’t criticize!

“Beta” means “not ready to sell,” not “it sucks, but we’re selling it anyway.”

Either release something for “beta” testing, or use it to make billions of dollars as a shipping product. But don’t ship and advertise a deeply flawed product and hide behind a “beta” label.

2. Siri: Why did you get worse after launch? 

Siri worked way better in the first few weeks after launch than it does today. It was less reliable then. But when the servers returned a result, it tended to be far more accurate.

What happened? Although dictation works great, Siri requests fail at an alarming rate.

A recent test found that Siri returned good results only 62 percent of the time in a noisy environment and 68 percent in a quiet one.

I’m almost certain that it worked better when the iPhone 4S first came out.

Why is Apple unable to replicate the capabilities it had eight months ago?

3. Siri: Why are you being secretive about the recordings you make of my voice?

It emerged this week that Apple keeps recordings of our voices as we interact with Siri. A voice pattern is a biometric identifier, just like a fingerprint. It’s as if Apple had a scanner on the surface of our iPhones, and was keeping a database of all our fingerprints.

A spokeswoman for Apple told a reporter that the recordings are “used for Siri’s operation and to help Siri improve its understanding and recognition.”

Fine. But why the secrecy and lack of transparency?

Why didn’t Apple tell us they were doing this? Why won’t they tell us for how long they’ll keep these personal identifiers, or what they’re doing to secure them against leaks, hacks or subpoena?

4. Siri: Why are you censoring facts on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party?

We also learned this week that the Chinese versions of Siri are pretty good at toeing the Chinese Communist Party line about sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

It could be, for example, that Siri gets all its information from Chinese sources that are themselves censored by Chinese government authorities. Or, it’s possible that the Chinese government explicitly sent Apple a list of forbidden topics. Or the worst-case scenario is that Apple is preemptively and voluntarily censoring on behalf of the party, just to avoid trouble.

Whichever it is, it would be nice to know the answer.

I want to love Siri, but a loving relationship requires openness and honest. I and I believe many others want to know how Siri is marketed, why it doesn’t work as well anymore, what it does with the biometric data it retains about us and to what extent it’s used by authoritarian regimes to censor history for political aims.

Siri: Is that too much to ask?

  • Tallest_Skil

    On point 1: you really need to bone up on this stuff more.

    On point 3: They told us this at launch…

    On point 4: We can’t all be anarchists. Every single company that wants to do business in China plays by their rules.

  • Whodakat

    Give it a rest. So sick of this topic. I guess my expectations weren’t in the stratosphere like everyone else’s. it works better than any speech interpreter I’ve ever used. And voice dictation works like a champ! As far as this article goes…

    1) The beta always made sense, to me that is, because it has to learn. Same goes for your question of why they store are voices. How else is it going to get better? It needs the data to learn. And a comparison between our voices and our finger prints would be more valid if voices were used world over as an identifier. Not saying you can’t use it but they don’t voice print you when you run into trouble.

    2) Data overload.

    3) See 1

    4) Apple has no business insighting revolt. Their job is to make products and to follow the laws of whatever country they sell those products in. If that bothers you, move to china and start doing something yourself instead of expecting government and business to do it for you.

  • shahn

    Good to see an article here that’s critical of apple.
    Btw – the beta argument is legit

  • CompTarPaul

    First point: I agree with you on that one. Why sell something that doesn’t work like advertised? Would be a better idea not running those adds at all. Apple and iPhone is famous enough to get along fine without adds about main features if you ask me.
    Next point: Data overload? This seems like an instance of Apple still growing up here, in that they didn’t know how much they would be able to handle.
    Point 3: You’re partially right about this one I say. First, Apple did say up front in the keynote they would be collecting data about voices of users and such. You’re right in that they didn’t explicitly detail how they analyze and use this data.
    Final point: i wouldn’t like to have information hidden or restricted from me on the web, but that’s unfortunately the case in many countries. in order to have their products sold internationally, Apple and other companies must abide by these rules.
    Why have only 4 questions? I believe 5 is a popular number.
    Siri: Why are not available on older devices? I remember when you were a standalone Appstore free download. You worked beautifully on my iphone 3gs.

  • ramunasbl

    It seams you are not asking Siri “will she marry you,” anymore :)

  • luis_tomazini

    Why there is the 4G symbol near to the carrirer name? As far as I know iPhones support only 3G networks.

  • ChadGleaves

    Yes, yes and yes on all your questions!! And to Luis about 4g- why would apple choose to lie with their phones? I get the feeling Steve would have rolled heads with some of this junk.

  • Tallest_Skil

    Why there is the 4G symbol near to the carrirer name? As far as I know iPhones support only 3G networks.

    Because AT&T is staffed with lying whores that have forced the iPhone to say “4G” when it’s on their 3G network.

  • lwdesign1

    I love Siri for what it actually does for me right now, not what I wish or think she should do. She dials calls for me, looks up contact info, finds the closest “whatever I’m looking for”, tells me the time when I can’t pull it out of my pocket (via my headset), and most importantly: plays my music when I’m riding my bike without having to push any buttons, take my attention off the road or pull the iPhone out of my pocket. I love Siri. If she gets better than what she does now, I’ll be ecstatic!! The iPhone is so much better for Siri being part of it that I can scarcely imagine being without her. I miss her when I work on my Mac.

    Now as for the wish list, I hope one day that she’ll:

    1. Be able to launch any app I’ve purchased.

    2. Know what I mean by the command “Cancel the music.” For some reason this doesn’t computer with her and she continues playing until I tell her to “stop the music.”


    But seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Siri unless you start projecting on her all your desires to have the Starship Enterprise’s artificial intelligence onboard computer. I believe that day is coming soon, but Siri has a long way to go to reach that stage. However, the iPhone is much more valuable with Siri than without. I have no major problems with it.

  • technochick

    1. Aren’t supposed to. Is there a law against it. Or does it just offend your personal sensibilities so they should stop

    2. you do understand that traffic went up on the servers and that will cause issues to any system.

    3. No one actually says that they are ‘keeping’ the records in the sense of anything longer than someone listening to it, comparing it to what Siri thought it said and making appropriate adjustments. or that anything that actually tags it to you is kept with it. without knowing that that voice is Mike Elgan such a ‘print’ has no usefulness. And as other have pointed out, they were up front about this keeping of folks to analyze them

    4. The government requires it.

  • technochick

    You’re right in that they didn’t explicitly detail how they analyze and use this data.

    And they won’t because that would be giving up information about trade secrets.

  • technochick

    Why there is the 4G symbol near to the carrirer name? As far as I know iPhones support only 3G networks.

    Because under the current standardized definition of 4G, it is a speed based issue (rather than tech issue) and there are areas in the US where ATT does reach the required speed

  • Ricky_mdiaz

    It’s beta testing for the Apple TV coming out, it has nothing to do with your phone, Siri needs to be smarter for your TV viewing and advertisement. You tell it the channel and it learns your habits, how much tv you watch to what gets your attention

  • ncdougb

    I use Siri in the tried-and-tested ways, so I generally have good success. The response rates are what drives me crazy, sometimes it can take WAY too long.

    But yesterday I needed some flowers so I asked Siri where I could buy them and, before returning a list, she said, “Ohh, for me?”. I loved it. That was the great surprise and value proposition of Siri the assistant.

  • Neil Anderson

    Why didn’t Munster use voice to input his Google questions?

  • northshorenerd

    Anybody who expected Siri to change their world had their head in he clouds to start with. It’s a new way of interacting with the same data.

    I’ve used it, and it was lackluster enough that basically I use it when I’m driving…which isn’t often.

  • RhysLadhani

    1. it works well enough to release but its a growing project. it will likely be beta for 10+ years as tech grows.
    2. again its beta and servers are only so powerful. theres a lot more users now than there were at launch.
    3. apple said they were doing this at launch and by buying an iphone you agree to the EULA, which allows them to use any info you give to their servers.
    4. who cares. all major companies do stuff like that when dealing with china. its a phone. dont take it so seriously.

    and “I want to love Siri, but a loving relationship requires openness and honest.” sounds to me like youre dating your phone. maybe put down the phone and go talk to real life girls (or boys).

  • joewaylo

    1. They could have called it Siri 1.0, then 2.0 and going up. Honestly I’d like to see Apple introduce newer features by the month to compete against Google.

    2. Siri needs to be improved in their response time to be out of the beta phase. They got hammered by Google in late June with Jelly Bean. Their response time has been 10 seconds on 4G and 5 seconds on WiFi. Their servers are also starting to have trouble recognizing you.

    I have to start talking slower than Data from Star Trek for Siri to recognize me which is hard for those with a speech impedement or other condition.

    3. Siri might be secretive, but that’s why Apple has given the end user the option to opt-out of Voice Dictation and Siri with a message on the screen upon it’s setup. The same message that is given for “Apple Diagnostics”.

    4. Honestly Apple has more to worry about than the Chinese communist party. They have to worry with the senators that are slamming Google and Apple with “Street View” “3D buildings” using state of the art drones to capture the designs.

    They already debacled them making the 3D buildings that could be helpful to our enemies overseas.

  • WebsterDavid2

    what Patrick said I’m startled that any one can get paid $7351 in four weeks on the internet. have you seen this web link(Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/GRZfk

  • Jacob_Alford

    For your first point, Siri was barely released less than a year ago. Siri has many flaws, yet have NO EFFECT on what Siri CAN do, thus the Beta phase. For your second point, Siri has become quite popular being the FIRST of “its” kind. With an explosion of iPhone 4S sales, Siri has also become more and more used. Apple servers are quite large, but can be SLIGHTLY laggy with the overuse. For your third point, Apple doesn’t care about who you are, they do not want to sell your identity, or anything similar. All Apple wants to do is improve user experience, and dominate the industry. For your fourth point, if Apple wants to appeal to users in China, they have to comply with Chinese regulations, etc. Also, I would like to add, Siri checks your email, checks your messages, reads them, replies, checks the weather, checks your calendar, reminds you, sets appointments, tells you the time, searches the web, finds local establishments, has an entire built in computational knowledge engine (wolfram alpha), reviews and more. Coming this fall, Siri will have an entire movie database, restaurant reservations, sports knowledge and much more. This is all achievable without even glancing at your screen! Now again, I say that Siri does have flaws, but that has no limit to what Siri CAN do.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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