iPhone 3GS Voice Control Glitches Recalls Newton Handwriting Woes

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Besides its (much-needed and noticeable) speed bump, the new iPhone 3GS offers only three exclusive features over its predecessors. There’s the extremely well-executed video editing, the promising but presently limited compass, and the voice control app.

And, surprising no one, the voice program is the only one of the three that isn’t ready for prime time. Why? Because voice recognition programs suck. Based on the challenges facing the 3GS, a truly foolproof voice interface is about as close to arriving as a mind-power interface. Having never owned a Newton, I have the distinct pleasure of playing with an advanced Apple technology that really doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s almost exciting!

Let’s get out the good first. When the app works, it does a pretty good job. On about 3 out of 10 efforts, it has actually done what I asked (more than any previous voice dialing app I’ve ever tried). Another third of the time, it did the function I wanted but with the wrong content (it placed a phone call, but to my mom, not my wife). And then 40 percent of the time, it just did something crazy and frustrating, like shutting down and locking the screen or, when I asked it to “Call Bruce,” it began to play a Sonic Youth song.

So there you go, a 30 percent hit rate of actual usefulness. Which is about 69 percent below the rest of the iPhone’s functionality — even the AT&T-dependent parts. Though I’ve owned an iPhone for all of 56 hours, I’m typing like a pro now, much faster than I ever managed on a BlackBerry. Every part of the iPhone experience that’s supposed to be questionable is actually brilliant.

Which just makes the voice control app’s flaws that much more prominent — it’s like a holdover from a Moto Razr that somehow snuck onto my iPhone. It’s not even good enough to use in the car — too great a risk of calling the wrong person. Honestly, I think it’s as good of an example as you can find for the overall difficulties with making voice-anything bullet-proof and reliable. Too many vocal variations, accents, and possible disruptions to ever be as good as what Apple shoots for.

Still, it’s hardly a downside to owning a 3GS — you can pull it out at parties and amuse your friends as it screws up. It’s like the first-generation Newton’s handwriting recognition all over again. Ian is riding a taste sensation, indeed!