One of the areas that I had high hopes for in the iOS portion of the WWDC 2013 Keynote was Siri. Thankfully, Apple didn't disappoint, showing off new web search integrations with Wikipedia and Bing, and new device system and setting controls. I'm a big sports fan, so I enjoyed last year's Yahoo Sports information integration, but what we got this year is FAR more meaningful. Here's a brief look at how things are shaping up so far.
I'll be honest. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Wikipedia. I've just never felt like I could trust it as a completely reliable source. However, it does have its uses, especially in combination with other sources from the web. For it's part, Siri does a good job of handling how it parses requests to Wikipedia. You can ask Siri to search Wikipedia specifically, or it may be included along with web searches for certain items. Either way, it actually works well, and is capable of conveying a lot of information on a topic quickly.
I personally think that Apple is using the combination of Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha to give information at a glance type responses, much the same way that Google does with their Knowledge Graph. It's a smart move on Apple's part, because there's no realistic way that they can duplicate that kind of search functionality themselves, without investing a decade and tens of billions of dollars into it.
In my testing, Siri has responded quickly with data from Wikipedia, Wolfram, and Bing. Considering that server lag and the cumbersome nature of web searches were major complaints with the previous versions of Siri, this definitely a step in the right direction.
2. Bing search
I know what your thinking. Bing? Really? Yes, Google is still king of the hill when it comes to web search, but Bing has actually come a long way in recent years. There was absolutely no way that Apple was going to plug Google into this key role, and Yahoo already licenses Microsoft's search technology, so Bing was a natural choice for this slot. I personally predicted that Apple would strike a deal with Yahoo, and their new boss Marissa Mayer for Siri search. Close, but not quite. However, the enemy of my enemy DID still turn out to be Apple's new search engine. I got that much right.
One of the points I made in my iOS 7 Crystal Ball series was that Apple needed to integrate automatic web search into Siri as soon as possible. Google's voice search may not have all of the contextual awareness capability of Siri, but it can almost instantly serve up their excellent web search results. That capability, in combination with Google Now, made the current version of Siri look very dated.
Thankfully, Apple was already hard at work on making web search a more integral part of Siri. Now, when you request a web search in iOS 7, Siri will automatically respond with results from Bing in the Siri prompt window. Searches will also include images, as well as links to other related searches. Selecting a result will link you to that particular page in Safari, while tapping the Bing logo at the bottom of the results will take you to the full search in Safari.
As for speed, Bing requests are a few seconds behind Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha results, but it is definitely faster than having to wait for Safari to cue up to see any of your results. It also beats having to manually trigger a web search with a button press. It isn't as fast as Google, but it is a noticeable improvement so far. If Apple can make this level of operation consistent, then users' perception of Siri should steadily improve.
For those who can't live without their Google or Yahoo searches, Siri will still perform them on request just like before. If you ask to “Google Apple, Inc,” or “Do a Yahoo Search for Steve Jobs,” Siri will treat the request just as she does in iOS 5 and 6. You will automatically be sent to a results page in Safari. So, if you just can't live with Bing, you still have options.
3. System and Settings Control
Have you ever need to bump your screen brightness up while driving on a bright, sunny day? Yeah, me too. Now Siri can adjust your brightness, as well as toggling common features like WiFi, Bluetooth, or Do Not Disturb. This isn't as vital an add as web search, but the more handy things that Siri can do by voice, the better.
4. Enhanced Twitter Integration
iOS 6 brought the ability to Tweet via Siri. This year, Apple took things to the next level, adding the capability to search for Tweets from a particular person, or about a person, place, or thing. Definitely a smart addition.
5. iTunes Radio
This isn't too much different than what you get from Siri's current Music player integration, but having voice control of music beyond that in your own library is a worthy addition. This definitely gives Apple's service a leg up on Pandora for in-car use.
6. Voicemail search
This didn't go as far as I had hoped in iOS 7, but it's a big step in the right direction. Siri and Spotlight are unfortunately still two completely separate entities. There is also still no text entry into Siri, except for the ability to edit queries after you have started them via voice. However, you do have the ability to search for more data on your device than before.
During the Keynote, Eddy Cue pointed out that you can also use Siri to search for voicemails in iOS 7. Specifically, he mentioned that you can have the service recall your last voicemail. He didn't elaborate further than that, and my iOS 7 beta is installed on an iPod Touch, so I'm not sure how much deeper this integration goes. Anything not revealed in the Keynote is also under NDA, so I couldn't mention it here, anyway. However, even with the limited information we have right now, it's not hard to see that this is a valuable feature to have at your disposal while driving.
So there you have it. Siri is off to a pretty solid start in the first beta of iOS 7, and that leaves Apple three to four months to tweak and refine before this updated finds its way into users hands. There is still work to be done. Siri's new, more natural male and female voices haven't arrived yet, and the iTunes Radio integration is still under construction, to name a couple. However, this is a good start.
These updates to Siri aren't revolutionary, but they are a solid step forward for a service that has taken a lot of lumps over the past year and a half. The key for Apple will be adding a high level of polish and consistency that wasn't there before. It seems from my testing that the elements that they need to serve their users are now in place. Now Apple just needs to nail down the server side. If they do, they have a chance to change the public's perception of Siri, and put the service back in the positive light it was viewed in at its release.
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