Siri And The iPhone’s Physical Keyboard

The backlash was inevitable.

Siri has had a bit of an image problem this past week. Just like all technology propelled by the tailwinds of hype, it hit the inevitable wall of tech punditry. This magically turned the stream of largely positive stories into a river of negative stories under the guise of things like: “the voice of reason” or the “wake up call”. It’s the oldest trick in the book and it never fails to generate massive pageview energy. It happens 100 percent of the time. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

First of all, the downtime issue is a total red herring. Yes, Siri has been wonky on and off for the past few days. God forbid that a service explicitly labeled as “beta” behave like a service still in beta. I understand that this is a bit of a tough concept to understand since companies like Google leave software in beta for the better part of a decade, thus castrating the term. But look no further than how rarely Apple actually labels something as “beta”. They basically never do it. They only do it when they expect a service to be less than spectacular 100 percent of the time.

That’s why stories demanding an explanation for Siri’s downtime are comical. Siri is behaving exactly as Apple has said that it would. Perhaps their only mistake was using the “beta” tag, which again, apparently means nothing anymore. And running a commercial touting the beta feature may not have been the best play right now either.

The more interesting angle of the backlash goes after what Siri is and what Siri is not. A few days ago, Jordan wrote a post entitled “Siri, Why Are You So Underwhelming?” In it, she brings up a few key points that I think are reflective of some frustrations many are having in this post-hype phase. While the broader notion is a bit silly: No, Siri cannot be a full replacement for a human assistant — nor do you have to pay Siri tens of thousands of dollars a year, provide it with health insurance, etc. Some of the smaller points definitely ring true. Siri can’t add contacts. Siri can’t open apps. Siri can’t play TV shows. Etc. But there’s a keyword missing in each of these:


Again, see: beta. All of that is coming, I have no doubt.

The key is when Jordan also complains that she can often type faster than Siri can think. That’s undoubtedly true. But the thinking here has to extend beyond the present and your own self. It reminds me a bit of the people who used to say that they needed a physical keyboard on their phone. And that Apple would eventually have to add one to the iPhone. It was a certainty. BlackBerry FTW.

Now all of those people seem to happily be using iPhones (or Android phones) without physical keyboards without problems. BlackBerry? Yeah…

What Siri represents is an extension of computing by utilizing something that (most) everyone has: voice. It’s the same thing with the touchscreens on the iPhone and iPad. They also utilize something that (most) everyone has: fingers. “If you see a stylus, they blew it,” Steve Jobs once famously said. And he was right. Why create something to distance yourself from the machine? In the past, these crutches were needed. We’re getting to the point where they aren’t anymore. Forget the mouse and keyboards, it’s touch and voice.

Everyone is amazed now when they see children interact with the iPad in such a natural way. And they’re even more amazed when they see a child with a physical magazine and it’s extremely foreign to them. The same thing will one day be true with Siri (or any comparable voice technology). What’s easier, teaching a child to type on a keyboard or letting them speak to a computer? There’s a reason why basically every science fiction author in the last century envisioned a future in which we speak to our computers. And there’s a reason why every major technology company has been working on speech technology for the past few decades. It’s a natural thing to do. And it makes sense that eventually it becomes a computing norm. Again, just like touch.

But we’re not there yet. And that’s why we’re seeing some of this backlash. Is Siri perfect? Of course not. It’s probably 1 percent of where it should be if we’re to use it as a regular computing input. But I’m always amazed when people seem to completely discount the fact that the technology will get better over time — and quickly.

But maybe it’s hard to blame them. Again, these are the people who wanted iPhones with physical keyboards. We want what we know. We don’t know voice as a primary method of computing. It’s awkward. It’s foreign. But it won’t be forever. And it especially won’t be for children who grow up learning to speak to computers. Our hesitance to speak to our machines will seem awkward to them.

Does that mean speech replaces text input entirely? Of course not. There are some times where typing is better — when you’re in a noisy room, for example. Or in a place you need to be quiet. Or if you’re saying something private. But there’s also a reason why humans don’t stand with one another and quietly pass notes back and forth.

My point is simply that you should take the Siri backlash with a grain of salt. We’ve seen such backlashes before, we’ll see it again. Everything is “stupid” and “useless” until it’s everywhere.

[image: CBS]