Overall, I am very excited about the new iPad – More so than I was about last year’s iPad announcement. This year I was impressed enough to immediately order a 16GB black model. After all, there is a nice list of new features built into the new iPad, and I own a first-generation iPad that could use replacing. One thing that is missing from that list of new features is Siri, the voice-controlled digital assistant built into every iPhone 4S.
At first, and for whatever reason, the inclusion of Siri totally skipped my mind. It had not occurred to me that the new iPad could or would have Siri built in. After using Siri on my phone, the thought hit me and then I wondered when, or if, we would see everyone’s favorite digital assistant on a future iPad. The announcement came and went, and the most we got out of it was a new microphone button located on the lower-left of the system-wide soft-keyboard, which allows for voice dictation. You speak, and it writes. But a full-blown Siri experience is nowhere to be found on the new iPad. I thought this exclusion was intriguing, but for me, not that alarming. To my mind, there are several very reasonable scenarios as to why Siri is not on the new iPad.
The first scenario is one of practicality. Perhaps Apple found a Siri experience lackluster on the iPad. Perhaps it was less personal than when it is used on the iPhone, a device that fits in one hand, is far more portable, and is traditionally held close to the face. Perhaps this is the reason, but I doubt it. Apple hires brilliant people to solve user experience problems like this. However, this issue is still a remote possibility.
The second scenario addresses marketing confusion. Siri requires a data connection to work. Siri picks up what you say via the iPhone’s microphone, sends it to Apple’s servers where it is processed, and then the results are pushed back down to the users device in the form of usable data and commands. A smartphone, such as the iPhone, is sold and can be expected to have a connection to data at all times. This ubiquitous connection is what makes Siri magical.
In contrast to the iPhone, the iPad does not have a constant data connection. Even the Wi-Fi + 4G LTE (or previous 3G models) model can have the cellular data turned on or off on a monthly basis. Apple simply cannot easily rely on the iPad having a constant connection to the internet as they can with the iPhone. Without a data connection, Siri does not work, making the inclusion of the feature a moot point.
Taking this scenario a bit further, let’s say Apple was comfortable in the belief that most Wi-Fi + 4G LTE iPads sold were connected to a cellular network at all times. Apple could then comfortably include Siri on the device with the expectation that users could access the feature from anywhere. Would Apple simply not build Siri into the Wi-Fi-only iPad? To my mind, if Apple were to exclude Siri on the Wi-Fi-only model, it would fragment their own product line. This would be messy at best, and add a layer of complexity and confusion for the end user– something that Apple traditionally tries to avoid.*
This leads to the next question: If Apple were concerned about a constant data connection as I suggested they might be, why would Apple build dictation support into the new iPad? After all, it relies on a constant data connection just as Siri does. Well, it turns out that in reality, dictation and Siri are two different technologies that Apple purchased at two different times. The dictation feature is actually rebranded Nuance technology, and Siri was an artificial intelligence company before Apple bought them and turned their technology into the Siri we’ve come to know over the past few months. So, my point being, these are two separate technologies under one ”Siri” brand, and obviously, Apple has more faith in Nuance dictation than they do the Siri AI technology.
With all that said, I suspect this new dictation key will be handled just as the dictation key is handled on the iPhone 4S. That is, when no data connection is present, the key is removed from the keyboard. When a connection is present, it appears and supplies the functionality. I think Siri could be handled in a similar way, and safely temper consumer expectations.**
This leads me to what I believe is the real reason there is no Siri on the new iPad: Apple deliberately withheld the feature from the device, because Siri is still officially in beta. And I mean beta in the true since of the word – it still has rough edges. It’s a work in progress.***
I also get the impression that Apple is cautiously rolling out Siri to avoid a server-side meltdown like we saw with the MobileMe launch. Other than built-in obsolescence, there seems to be little technical reason that Siri cannot run on the iPhone 4. Apple is using the iPhone 4S’s relatively smaller installed base as the testing ground for Siri. I think, and this is purely a guess, Apple withheld Siri from the new iPad for the same reason. The iPad is seeing explosive growth which will soon eclipse the iPhone. Adding the iPad’s (or iPhone 4’s) tremendous growth to the significant demand already on Siri could prove to be problematic. I believe Apple is trying to keep any undue strain off of their fledgling cloud services to avoid another MobileMe-scale disaster. So far so good.
Working with this hunch, and working off of Apple’s recent announcements regarding the forthcoming release of OS X Mountain Lion, which will offer greater support for the iCloud ecosystem, I suspect that we will see greater Siri integration in the coming months across all of Apple’s product lines. Perhaps Siri will be bundled in iOS 6 for iOS devices, and in OS X Mountain for the Mac. Again, purely a hunch, but this would give Apple more time to work out some of the growing pains in iCloud, while also prepping new languages and functionality for Siri.
In other words, I believe this is just the beginning for Siri. Apple is just taking it slow with the rollout of Siri and iCloud in general, to avoid another MobileMe-sized kerfuffle. It appears that they are buying time, and preparing to make a bigger splash with the Siri in iOS 6 or possibly an even later version of iOS and OS X****. I certainly hope this is what Apple has up their sleeve for 2012. Time will tell I suppose.
*It turns out that leaving carrier, capacity, and color options to the customer has led to confusion in the past. So much so, that Apple had to redesign their online store selection process in the early days of the iPad.
**The problem here isn’t so much the reliability of Siri and other functionality similar to it, but rather, indicating to the end-user when the functionality is connected and available .
***Voice recognition, and other artificial intelligence technologies like it, get better with time. They collect data, and with more compiled data, they can better handle future requests. Think of Apple’s iTunes Genius feature as a decent comparison.
****I’m currently enjoying the headlines from pundits who claim that the lack of Siri on the new iPad is a serious misstep for the company. According to them, gloom and doom, awaits us under the new, inept leadership of Tim Cook. Sensationalist, link-bait journalism at its best. Give Siri time, says I.