Elgan: Getting serious about Siri

Apple's talkative new virtual assistant is no parlor trick. It's a powerful tool, especially if you use these three Pro Tips.

Apple's new Siri virtual assistant feature in the iPhone 4s is already causing controversy and dividing the gadget-loving universe.

Siri lovers, including Yours Truly, say Siri is fun and useful and represents the future of machine-human interfaces.

Siri haters say the feature is a novelty act, a copy of Android Voice Actions and generally useless for actual work.

Of course, everyone is entitled to use or not use any technology. Some people, including Google Android chief Andy Rubin, think cell phones should be used for talking to other people, not for talking to the phone.

That's fine. It's a free country.

But I think the naysayers are wrong about the importance and impact of Siri and its ilk. Talking virtual assistants are revolutionary and will prove extremely popular.

More than that, they're incredibly useful and powerful -- especially if you use my three Pro Tips at the bottom of this column.

Why I'm biased in favor of technologies like Siri

I stand by my claims and predictions about Siri. But I also have to admit a bias in favor of voice-based personal assistants, and for two reasons.

First, any reader of my column in this space knows I've been trying to "roll my own" virtual assistant for years.

I've been testing and using various services that do part of what Siri does, including Jott, Vlingo, reQall and most recently Dial2Do, and have written about them extensively.

Most of these involve making a phone call, and interacting with a virtual assistant on the other end of the line. For example, until last week, whenever I wanted to add something to my calendar or send myself an email reminder, I would hit the speed dial for Dial2Do. A female voice that sounds something like Siri would answer, and ask: "What would you like to do?" I would say either "calendar" or "reminder," then say the information I wanted to to be acted upon.

I've also been a heavy user of services like Bing 411 or the now defunct GOOG-411. With those, you call a virtual assistant, and ask for the names of businesses. The services send you a link to map directions or connect your call.

And finally, I love dictation and voice-command software, and am a heavy user of Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Siri is vastly superior to any and all of the solutions I've been trying to cobble together all these years.

The second reason I'm biased in favor of virtual assistant technology on cell phones is my eyesight. I'm over 40 (OK, WAY over 40), and I need reading glasses while using a computer or reading a book, and especially to see the tiny text on my iPhone.

However, I don't have or wear my glasses while driving, working out at the gym, running, walking around town or shopping, cooking or cleaning up or while in bed.

Siri enables me to play music and podcasts, send and receive emails and texts, give myself reminders, make appointments, get directions and all the rest without needing glasses or even taking the phone out of my pocket.

I don't understand how anyone can fail to understand how great this is.

Why Apple is taking Siri so seriously

Rubin's recent comment, essentially showing a personal bias against Siri-like technology (even though Google engineers are working hard to out-do Siri with their own technology), reveals a breathtaking absence of vision about the future of computing. And it's one that I'm sure many others at Google do not share.

As I've said many times in this space, the future of all computing is iPad-like touch tablets. Within a few years, you'll trade in your old-and-busted WIMP PC (WIMP stands for windows, icons, menus and pointing devices), and embrace something similar to a giant iPad, set at a drafting table angle on your desk.

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