Why Is Siri Still In ‘Beta’?

siribeta

Apple’s Siri personal assistant has been in development for 10 years.

Apple doesn’t let app developers use the word “beta” for iPhone apps.

And the company spends millions on — and make billions from — the advertising of their “beta” product specifically.

Given these facts, is it disingenuous, unfair, inconsistent, hypocritical and inaccurate for Apple to continue calling Siri “beta”?

IBM invented the “beta” designation for software in the 1950s. IBM was very clear about what “beta” meant.

“Alpha” was used by IBM to refer to software that had not been announced; “beta” was for software that had been announced, but not shipped.

A “beta test” referred to the release of software to a few selected customers to find out if the software was ready for sale.

Nowadays, the “beta” label has come to mean whatever companies want it to mean.

There is no independent review board or legal criteria (although it can be used for legal protection).

Normally, companies make the decision based on whether they feel they need to lower expectations and shield themselves from criticism on the one hand, or promote healthy sales on the other.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t have to make that calculation. Siri is a feature, not a product. So there’s no downside for them to hide behind the “beta” label for Siri.

Yes, Apple has the “right” to put a “beta” label on anything they want. If developers, partners or users don’t like it, they can go buy buy an Android phone.

But before you write off the Siri “beta” issue as another annoying tech writer making a big deal over nothing, consider the following three facts:

1. Apple bans “beta” apps from the App Store

Apple explicitly bans apps in the App Store that are labeled as “beta.” (Refer to App Store Review Guidelines #2.9: “Apps that are ‘beta’, ‘demo’, ‘trial’, or ‘test’ versions will be rejected.”)

If you’re an app developer and want to do what Apple did  — release something with the “beta” label — Apple will reject your app. We’re not supposed to reject their use of “beta,” but they will reject yours.

Knowing Apple’s policy, a few app makers will delay their app until it’s out of what they consider “beta.” But in most cases, I suspect, developers simply release their “beta” software and don’t call it “beta.”

Apple grants itself that blanket protection from criticism (and class-action lawsuits), but denies it to their app developer community.

Anyone who believes that Apple’s use of the “beta” label for Siri is “no big deal” should object to Apple’s ban on the label for app developers.

Anyone who supports the ban on “beta” labels for app developers should object to Apple’s use of the “beta” for Siri.

2. Apple uses Siri to make billions of dollars. 

Apple uses Siri in certain high-budget, prime-time TV ads to pitch the iPhone, thereby using Siri commercially to make billions of dollars — yet Apple still hides behind the “beta” label for Siri.

In fact, Apple even hired some of the biggest (and most expensive) stars in Hollywood – John MalkovichMartin ScorseseSamuel L Jackson and Zooey Deschanel — to advertise Siri in prime time. (Siri is the only feature advertised in these spots.)

A New York man named Frank Fazio sued Apple, claiming their TV commercials for Siri constitute a “misleading and deceptive message.”

Many have criticized the lawsuit, saying that if he doesn’t like the product, he shouldn’t buy it. But in fact Fazio didn’t sue Apple because Siri was flawed. He sued Apple because they appeared to claim in TV commercials that Siri did things that in real life it couldn’t do.

The lawsuit was invalid. Apple’s Siri advertising didn’t show capabilities that Siri cannot do. The ads were not “false advertising.”

But it’s also true that Apple’s defense was equally invalid, in my opinion. Apple’s main defense against Fazio’s lawsuit was that Siri is “beta” and, even though they were spending millions and making billions advertising Siri specifically (and in several ads exclusively), it’s just in a test phase and therefore any expectations of quality are invalid.

The judge accepted this defense and the suit was dismissed.

What, exactly, is the legal definition of “beta”? How can a court of law can accept a defense based on the “beta” status of a product when the word has no legal definition — it doesn’t even have a standard definition outside the courts.

This is an unprecedented situation in the history of any product ever, as far as I know.

Here you have a company that spends millions of dollars to make TV commercials that focus 100% on the benefits of a single feature — presumably using that feature to convince thousands or millions of people to buy iPhones — then claiming that the feature advertised isn’t finished and therefore users shouldn’t have high expectations for it.

Can you think of another “beta” product or feature advertised on prime-time TV?

On the one hand, you shouldn’t be able to successfully sue a company because a “beta” feature is “beta” and therefore isn’t finished. On the other hand, you shouldn’t spend millions of dollars to advertise a feature in prime time if that feature is “beta” and isn’t finished.

3. Siri has been in development for ten years. 

Siri has been a work in progress for many years. The technology was originally developed for the Pentagon starting in May, 2003.

Researchers from that project spun it out as a private app-based technology six years ago.

Siri had been a great app in the iOS App Store for quite a while before Apple acquired the company three years ago.

It was officially rolled out as a feature of the iPhone on October 4, 2011 — nearly a year and a half.

Depending on when you start counting, Siri is 10, 6, 3 or 1.4 years old. How long is this “beta” test going to last?

In a nutshell, I think it’s disingenuous, unfair, inconsistent, hypocritical and inaccurate for Apple to continue to call Siri “beta.”

Oh, and by the way: If you disagree with this column in any way, don’t criticize it. The column is still in “beta.”

  • markbyrn

    Apple is just copying Google – Gmail was in beta for 5 years. Don’t sweat it Mike.

  • lwdesign1

    What Mike is really saying is “Apple, hurry up and roll out the Siri updates to make it even better than it is now.” Who cares what it’s called. Software by any other name is still code.

  • Solowalker

    Actually, these days “beta” usually means “Doesn’t do everything we want it to do yet.” Yes, some will define that as “has some bugs we want to fix first” while others will do what Apple is doing and say “we want to add more functionality first.” Anyone remember iWork.com?

    Unfortunately, the company I work has a similar situation with a product. We have a software product that’s been in development for about 3 years (depending on how you count it) that has been available for use for at least 2 years but it still has yet to reach 1.0. It’s being advertised and sort of being sold–not in a very measurable way. But they still call it beta, for better or worse, because it doesn’t do everything they want it to do.

    While I tend to agree with and prefer the more traditional definition of beta, I can totally see how the lines have been blurred. I believe it comes from the age of the internet and the ease of digital software deployment. Betas, alphas, and nightlies abound from countless vendors, both open and closed source but more common from open source. It’s fast and easy to throw something out there and then push an update whenever and however often you want, and most of your user base could be updated within hours especially if you have a required update mechanism. With the old method of software distribution this was literally impossible.

    Beta is now the new “1.0”. Before, only the adventurous and geeks used 1.0 software as it was accepted that there would be many issues. Most would wait for a couple of updates or so to be released before even considering using a program. It would also take years longer for programs to be released in an effort to ship with as few bugs as possible. Now, there’s a common notion of “ship early and ship frequently” just to get something into people’s hands. In most cases it actually works out well but it can mean very early versions (beta/1.0) can still be unstable or incomplete, but gradually over time a robust and solid product can emerge, one that the public can use during that process. What label the initial version has is just semantics these days. Also, Google is a big culprit of causing the proliferation of “beta.”

    Anyway, Apple is in the process of transitioning nearly all of their software products to more iterative releases including OSX and maybe some hardware, too (looking you, iPad). Smaller, cheaper, more frequent versions. But even with that, it can take quite a long time to get to something most would view as “substantial.” Final Cut Pro X is another good example of this effect and it was met with similar derision when it was first announced. If anything, maybe we’re lucky Apple didn’t call that a “beta.”

    Should Apple be calling Siri “beta” at this point? Probably not. With iOS 6 came more robust features and more language support. I was expecting them to completely drop the Beta designation of Siri with it. While it’s still technically in “beta,” it looks like Apple may be trying to transition away from that. For example, look at the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 pages and their coverage of Siri. No beta there. It’s only still termed a beta feature on the dedicated Siri pages, and much less prominently at that. Maybe iOS 7 will take it out of beta entirely?

  • leetut

    It’s beta because it doesn’t work properly, less than 1% of people in the uk actually sound like the queen, and we have to speak like her for Siri to understand us! Personally I ain’t interested in it but I do want more storage 128-256gb of storage, it’s called innovating, and I ain’t paying more than the base model for it

  • SevanGrim

    i agree. At this point, its not Beta. Its released, and it has bugs. Are they just planning on leaving it “in Beta” forever? Becuase it will always need updates.there will always be new terms and weird dialects.
    Right now, its their way of trying to coax people into upgrading while still having a reason to shrug when the product doesnt work.

  • WangTassinari

    til I looked at the receipt which had said $9215, I did not believe that…my… best friend was like they say truly taking home money in there spare time online.. there sisters roommate has been doing this 4 less than thirteen months and a short time ago cleared the mortgage on their place and bourt Smart ForTwo. this is where I went, ………. BIT40.?O?

  • tobi

    “After 13 years of development, version 1.0.0 of VLC media player was released on July 7, 2009.” (Wikipedia)

  • khodson98

    This is honestly a stupid article. I’m no apple fanboy or whatever you wanna call it but beta is when a company thinks the products hasn’t reached its full potential and arrogant people like you guys would complain if it wasn’t beta because you had to wait 30 seconds to get a response from her. So to all of you guys don’t use the product/feature and yes it is a marketable product if you don’t like it and try using something like google now on iOS and let it tell you just how tall a building is and what the weather is for today. The writer of this is very hypocritical because if you look at any competition to this Siri blows it out of the water. I also wouldn’t consider a government project a “beta” product apple has added way more features then when they had it in what you call governmental development. It has way more features than even the App Store version they had a while back. This whole article is a sham. Yes comment on this and say I’m stupid and my opinion is a fanboy haters.

  • AlbertoMS89

    People this is very simple, Siri is still on Beta because there is not one piece of software that can do what Siri does and be call perfect, because even if they say they’re perfect, they’re not, there will always be something else that the developers will have to fix or tweak because voice recognition software is years, maybe decades from being perfect, why because every human has a different voice. I hope I could make you all understand how smart Apple is being (in this occasion) by telling people that Siri is still on Beta, because if they say Siri is no longer in Beta, people will start to make a really big deal about how is not perfect.

    I hope i made myself clear, if any of you would like to contribute in my argument feel free to leave replies, because as I’ve said, I’m also not perfect so I might be wrong.

  • Koban4max

    apple company itself is beta….they haven’t been at their full potential to be in marketplace. :D

  • seaaalex

    “Why Is Siri Still In ‘Beta’?”

    Have you ever used it ?

  • lwdesign1

    It’s beta because it doesn’t work properly, less than 1% of people in the uk actually sound like the queen, and we have to speak like her for Siri to understand us! Personally I ain’t interested in it but I do want more storage 128-256gb of storage, it’s called innovating, and I ain’t paying more than the base model for it

    I would imagine that Apple is having fits and nightmares trying to make Siri understand the amazing diversity of accents and local dialects found in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Even though “English” is the common language, just listening to a Scouser (Liverpool), Brummie (Birmingham), Yorkie (Yorkshire), Glaswegian (Glasgow) or any of the hundreds of distinctly and wildly different UK accents is interesting and entertaining, however, it can be challenging even to a human unless they’re familiar with the local dialect. Fortunately in North America there are fewer drastic variances of dialects, so Siri can be programmed much more easily. It will take time for Apple to record and program each of the dialects in the UK so that Siri can understand what the heck each of you delightful folks are saying.

    While Siri appears to be magic in Apple’s commercials, it takes hard work on each dialect to record speech patterns and match these up to specific words and meanings. Slang, localisms and idioms that differ significantly from area to area also contribute to the huge complexity involved. Added to all this is that Apple is ALSO working on German, Dutch, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and many more languages–each of which has their own unique complexities, dialects, idioms, slang and local figures of speech, and you start to see the enormous job Apple has taken on.

    Thus, I have no problem seeing Siri still in beta. Making Siri work JUST IN ENGLISH is a monumental task when you consider the scope it has to encompass, and it’s not surprising that many UK residents will continue to be very upset with Siri’s lack of ability to understand them for some time, especially those whose dialects move significantly away from “the Queen’s English” Apple has standardized on so far. Given enough time and Herculean effort, I imagine Apple will train Siri to understand a heavy Cockney accent and “come up the apples and pears (stairs)” and the Yorkshireman’s “ee by gum (gosh, really? or who’d have thought it?)”.

    Being a Canadian living in the U.S., Siri and I get along quite well, although she still can’t understand and find Lotus Street in the town next to the one I live in. Give it time folks. If Siri doesn’t work well in your part of the world, have patience that eventually Apple will get around to your particular strange, er, unique accent over the coming years.

  • Bob Smogango

    I think this technology requires lots of users feeding into the development by real world use. I think that is the nature of this type of software, just like search is. It takes time to learn. If it is based on learning words, people use words differently as people ask or search for things sometimes using slang meanings. I think that this is partially what might be happening. I’ve used Siri and Google Search and found them to both be accurate and innacurate almost 50% or the time. I personally don’t put too much importance on this feature and I think the whole voice command idea, whether it’s Siri, Google Search, Google Now, etc., is just still in development. Look at IBM’s Watson. I would love it if IBM released an iOS app for everyone to use and to check out to see how useful that might be too. I think Apple needs to get Siri to be used for controlling the device, dictating and using certain apps that would be best suited for it. And over time, I’m sure they will get it together. But as a user, I haven’t changed my habit of using voice commands vs typing on a keyboard.

  • Bob Smogango

    apple company itself is beta….they haven’t been at their full potential to be in marketplace. :D

    Everyone that’s in practically in EVERY single field where there are advancements is in perpetual Beta. Look at the auto industry. those guys are CONSTANTLY making improvements sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. Look at networking. They are constantly coming out with new specs and standards to replace an old standard. Do you remember ethernet running on coax? What happened to coax? I thought that was perfected. Yeah, right. Whatever is on the market is just a prototype for the next replacement model so all we and do is buy whatever fits our needs/wants/budget the day we make the decision knowing that we are going to get sometime else down the road that’s hopefully better. the sooner you accept this, then it’s one less thing to worry about.

    The English language and the Slang languages this society speaks changes on a daily basis, and that’s all fed into the “system”.

    Here’s an example that both Siri and Google Search failed. I was trying to look up a part number that used the letters “I”, “C”, “B”, etc. And they system got confused with the words “EYE”, “SEE”, “BEE”, etc. So for certain things nothing that i used worked. Guess what? This stuff may never become totally 100% 100% of the time. But what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable? 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 75%, 90%? What algorithms are they using and what level of accuracy can we achieve on a consistent basis? So far, I’ve used Siri and Google Search and for what I’ve used them for, they are batting about 50%. Is that acceptable? Well, for now I am just typing in my search request and hoping I get better results, because the system can SEE what I’m typing versus listening to someone speak and trying to figure out the meaning, especially when the meaning changes constantly due to changes in how we used words and letters. It’s also how we phrase the statement.

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in this stuff until we all see more consistency, so in the mean time, voice recognition is STILL in Beta, no matter what name you call it.

    I’ve been in the computer industry on some level since personal computers came out and voice recognition first came out a LONG time ago in the 80’s and it’s always been an ongoing process to improve it. It’s come a long way, but it’s not quite there, YET.

  • Bob Smogango

    Hey, why isn’t there an article about the Bible? That book in it’s earilest version dates back several thousand years, and it seems to get updated, why aren’t people getting bent out of shape over that? People run their lives based on that book and to have it modified or to learn that a statement in it needs to be changed? UH OH. Someone might be in trouble.

    Or how about the Dictionary. that gets modified yearly and the Slang Dictionary of what and how people use words get changed by the second.

  • Bob Smogango

    Remember when the first IBM PC came out, it only came with like 64K of RAM and at that time they thought that would enough RAM to work with. WRONG. Now some people need a minimum of 16G of RAM just to use an application and load a file to modify and use.

    I wonder what’s going to happen when we need a Terabyte of RAM just to run the OS and all we do with the computer is search the internet, send emails, play some music…

    Sometimes, I feel let’s just press the reset button and go back to DOS 2.1. Oh wait, make it 3.11, that was better.

    i guess $HIT changes.

  • Jim Allen

    This is an utterly ridiculous article. The hypocrisy in the irony in the last comment totally destroys any intended humour for me.

    Siri is indeed utterly useless for anything but simple alarms, reminders and text messages.

    Why no control of bluetooth? Why no unlock by voice? Why can’t Siri announce my appointments instead of just beeping? The phone beeps all the time, if it had an option to read the appointments it would be a *lot* more useful. Microsoft Voice Command could do this at the time of the original iPhone.

    Directions with Siri are woeful. I wouldn’t expect it to get me to Nantyffyllon for example, but recently I did try, while driving, and only 10 minutes away “Direct me to Newport Bus Station”. This utterly failed. Apart from the fact that until recently, Newport (probably Wales’s third city) was a mythical land as far as Apple Maps was concerned; you would expect Siri to be able to determine my current location, analyse the request, identify the most likely place and find one of the two main transport hubs in that city. Google finds the correct Newport first time BTW.

    The main value of Siri, is hands-free use when you can’t type, like driving for example. If you use Siri when you can type/select your commands, all you are doing is showing off or saving a few seconds. Unless you are running a large organisation, saving a few seconds is not exactly going to make a huge difference to your day.

    If you want to find out how crap Siri is, try asking it “Define diphthong”, often pronounced ‘dip-thong’.
    I would have expected the term ‘Define’ to be straightforward to interpret. Nope, Siri asks me if I want it to search the internet for specialist articles of intimate apparel. Siri is so crap that it’s not even funny any more.

    Dictation is awful. If you pause or hesitate even slightly, the recording terminates. It’s useless for any dictation of any length.

    And the obvious potential solution to my problems is my accent. Except that by common agreement I don’t have one. If Siri can’t understand my accent, it is going to struggle with any UK accent.

    Finally – Siri is *slow*. Anyone who has used Google Voice search will know exactly how slow.

    No – it’s quite clearly incomplete and not at all worthy of being included as a complete feature. It’s about as functional as Apple Maps…

  • ikonik

    Bring on some new hardware and stop focusing our attentions on the same Siri used to sell iPhone 4S. It’s not changed enough to keep seeing commercials about it. Make some hardware commercials that will blow us away. Keep up with real gear. Anyone can make a software upgrade. It takes apple and apple alone to make iPhones. Do a better job at making those and maybe Siri will work better.

  • talkler

    @JimAllen Interesting points RE Siri’s limitations (“slow” “useless” “dictation is awful”). Worth noting: #Talkler – Email for your Ears is designed specifically to address these limitations.

  • Bob Smogango

    Bring on some new hardware and stop focusing our attentions on the same Siri used to sell iPhone 4S. It’s not changed enough to keep seeing commercials about it. Make some hardware commercials that will blow us away. Keep up with real gear. Anyone can make a software upgrade. It takes apple and apple alone to make iPhones. Do a better job at making those and maybe Siri will work better.

    Has anyone compared Siri on a iPhone 4S vs iPhone 5? Does it work faster due to the processor and/or faster data connection? I haven’t tried that comparison. I think it would be interesting to note.

    I do think that a lot has to do with in the Research Labs, it’s a fairly controlled environment, but when they release to everyone, we have people that range from illiterate people that don’t speak English very well, to speaking letters which can be confused with words. “I” = EYE, “B” = Be or Bee, “C” = See, “Y” = Why, “J” = Jay, “D” = Dee, “G” = Gee, “O” = Oh, “P” = Pea, Pee, “T” = Tee, Tea, “U” = You, etc. etc.

    I get both Siri and Google Search get confused every time I ask for something that uses letters and it comes back with something related to one of the various other things that SOUND like a letter. That’s the biggest problem. Speed, YEAH, that’s an issue.

  • jpadhiyar

    Siri is nowhere close to how it’s marketed but hey, that’s what Apple does with several other things too. I don’t know why someone would spend so much time in ranting about a non-issue. “beta”, “no beta”… nobody cares. It’s a “working” feature on the iPhone. That’s all they need.

  • snailer12

    “This is an unprecedented situation in the history of any product ever, as far as I know.”

    What about every microsoft OS ever? They put out unfinished crap and make US tell them what’s wrong with it. Beta is S.O.P. for M$.

  • SuperJunior

    SAMSUNG Galaxy Note 2 is the best mobile phone.
    Until Note 3 comes out.
    SAMSUNG fighting!

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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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