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?



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