Siri, Why Should Google and Microsoft Fear You?

Funny, I had an article entitled "what happened to speech recognition?" in the works, which I started before the launch of the iPhone 4S.

I've been involved in speech recognition technologies for the greater part of the last 20 years - and despite the never-ending slew of technological advances, while speech remains the fundamental means of communicating with each other as humans, it still hasn't taken off as the means of communicating with machines.

It's quite hard to put a finger on exactly why, in the sense that there's no single obvious reason; mainly it's a complex recipe of issues involving over-expectation and under-performance, not to mention the relevance of the alternatives.

Could that be set to change? It looks disctinctly possible - It won't happen overnight, but Apple has a track record of generating the momentum for technology adoption, even where the technology is not necessarily entirely new (mp3 players and tablets immediately spring to mind). Here are some interesting views on the topic...


As I watched The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital Asia interview with Android’s Andy Rubin, I was highly intrigued by his comments about Apple’s Siri. Rubin told Walt Mossberg, "I don't believe your phone should be an assistant." He said, "Your phone is a tool for communicating. You shouldn't be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone."

Furthermore, when questioned about Siri, Microsoft’s Andy Lees said it "isn't super useful." At the same time, he noted that Windows Phone 7 has a degree of voice interactivity in the way it connects to Bing. Thus, it harnesses "the full power of the internet, rather than a certain subset."

What are these two guys smoking? They both seem to ignore the fact that Apple has just introduced voice as a major user interface. Its use of voice, coupled with AI on a consumer product like the Apple iPhone, is going to change the way consumers think about man-machine interfaces in the future.

But I think their responses were rooted in jealously and the fact that, based on what it will soon become, Siri will ultimately threaten their businesses.


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Bad Apple - The chink in the Armour (How the iPhone 4S failed)

Apple launched a great product on 4th October 2011 - a new iPhone, the 4s, faster processor, hugely improved camera, better battery life, better global inter-operability, new iOS (previously announced), more memory - and so the list goes on.

And yet the overwhelming feeling I've seen (and have myself) is one of great underwhelm-ment. How so? Isn't this a great device?

Yes, it is. But you have to remember how high Apple traditionally sets the bar. Rumours abounded about a new iPhone 5 with lush new looks and a bigger screen. In light of this, surveys were suggesting that almost 70% of existing iPhone users were looking to upgrade - an astonshing figure representing pent-up demand. If Apple could have translated this into action, it would have blown the sales figures sky high. 

Will Apple translate this into conversions? I doubt it.

So what went wrong?

Two things.

First, they broke one of Steve Jobs' cardinal rules. He's quoted as saying "We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them". That's right, designs so good you want to lick them.

Apple failed spectacularly here by launching a phone with identical looks and form factor to the iPhone 4. Sure, it was good enough to lick when it was first launched 16 months earlier, but expectations have moved on. A whole generation of iPhone and non-iPhone new users want to proudly display and caress their new swish (and expensive) pocket companion. Think I'm exaggerating? People actually seem to love their smartphones.

Apple totally let them down. It's almost inconceivable how they managed to. Design is everything at Apple, and yet what Apple did yesterday was play with features. Features. Features, in fact, that users are not even sure they need, want or know how to use: like the Siri speech recognition. Who was aching for this? (I was aching for features that simplified clumsy workflows, such as rotating and cropping photos - totally basic stuff that was missing onboard - thankfully they delivered on that).

Second, they didn't fully tap into the user ownership experience. This needs careful definition. The user experience of the iPhone is wonderful. World class, world leading. From an interface point of view it is the slickest out there. And clearly Apple hoped to slap a bit more slickery onto it with the speech recognition, improvements in iOS 5 (such as the message centre) and so on. All good. All very good.

But what it didn't do was tap into the emotional part of how that experience manifests for users - what it feels like to own one. Their joy, passion, advocacy for the product that comes from using and adoring it. In recent years Apple has been the leading technology company that's melded all the aspects of good design, good service, good marketing, good experience into one happy melting pot of customer enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, the products and the Apple experience. It's a tough feat to pull off, but Apple had licked it. (Licking is a recurring theme. )

It failed on this yesterday by calling the iPhone 4S the iPhone 4S. The hopes and aspirations of would-be iPhone 5 users were dashed. Something as simple as the chosen name communicated to the world: we didn't do so much this time; we're not being revolutionary any more. Apple, not being revolutionary? That used to be pretty much Steve Jobs' mantra.

The choice of name communicated so much more than any feature list could ever hope to do.

So, what we have here, is a world class product that failed to connect with its users. For me, that suddenly shines a light on a chink in Apple's armour.



Is iPhone’s Voice Control the Sound of Things to Come?


When it comes to designing intuitive, compelling user interfaces, Apple is hands-down the best. Starting with the Mac but most evident with each new generation of “i” products — iMac, iPod and iPhone — the company has demonstrated time and again what so many other device makers and mobile operators have failed to understand: It’s the UI, stupid! So when Apple features Voice Control in commercials for the newest iPhone 3GS, the mobile industry should sit up and take notice.


While the marriage of speech technologies and mobile is under way and irreversible, the transition won’t be a smooth one. First, many undoubtedly remember past speech applications that didn’t work very well. That perception will need to be overcome; implementing speech with simple applications, as Apple has done with Voice Control, is a good way to start. Secondly, some applications are more compatible with speech than others. Selecting and listening to music, for instance, is a natural application; the number of songs and artists is limited, which improves accuracy of speech recognition, and users typically listen to music in a closed environment or with a headset — hopefully with a built-in microphone — which reduces ambient noise and makes it easier for voice commands to be understood.

Much as RIM has carved out a loyal following by developing solutions optimized for email, there is a significant opportunity for operators and OEMs to incorporate speech into mobile devices and applications in a comprehensive way. Apple is leading the way, and others will likely follow suit.



Yap Announces Release of iPhone SDK

Yap, developer of the world’s first fully automated speech-to-text hosted platform for communications service providers, today announced the availability of its Software Development Kit (SDK) for the speech-enablement of iPhone applications. The Yap SDK for the iPhone gives developers a simple interface to rapidly voice-enable existing mobile applications such as email, instant/text messaging, search, social networking, voicemail-to-text and others

Twitter to Facebook: 5 Ways to Post to Both (1 way with speech)

There are times when we’d really like to phone in our Twitter and Facebook updates with little to no effort. Vlingo’s mobile application for Nokia, BlackBerry, and iPhone does speech recognition for a variety of functions, but we love it for status updates.

Once your Facebook and Twitter accounts are configured, you can hit the “press + speak” button and say the “status update” command to start verbalizing your update. Vlingo will then transcribe your audio to text and update your status on Facebook and Twitter. We also really like the fact that you can double check the speech to text translation before you update your social presence.

Sensory Releases Speech Recognition Development Kit for iPhone

Sensory, Inc. announced that it has ported its FluentSoft Speech Recognition Software Development Kit to the Apple iPhone platform. iPhone developers can now create applications that feature large vocabulary speaker-independent recognition command and control capabilities. Using a proprietary text-based phonetic engine, the FluentSoft SDK allows custom tuning of speech recognition sets containing thousands of words or phrases without the need to verbally train on the phone.

Loquendo Lets You Tell Your iPhone Who to Call

Speech technologies provider, Loquendo, recently announced the release of its very first iPhone (News - Alert) application, Dillo! The new offering is a voice dialer that allows users to say the name of the person or number to call and through speech recognition technology, the iPhone dials the contact based on solely the voice command from the user.

Report: iPhone 3.0 may include voice recognition, synthesis features

rumors suggest that the iPhone may soon be more receptive to my pleas: Ars Technica reports thatuncovered software frameworks in the iPhone 3.0 beta might represent speech recognition and synthesis systems.

Of course, this isn’t exactly out of left field. Both the latest iPod nano and iPod shuffle include speech synthesis capabilities, dubbed Spoken Menus in the 4G nano and VoiceOver in the iPod shuffle, that allow users to navigate the devices without having to look at the screen. In both cases it helps people who are visually impaired use the devices, but in the shuffle it’s also a necessity, since the device has no screen and a potentially confusing control scheme.

The iPhone and iPod touch are extremely difficult for visually impaired users to interact with, as they have little in the way of tactile cues or feedback. Voice recognition in particular has been a heavily requested feature, as it could improve not just accessibility, but everyday tasks such as dialing a number without having to look at the phone’s screen—handy for when you’re driving, for example.

Speech Recognition on the iPhone, Via Vlingo

iPhone owners can download a free Vlingo app through the iTunes App Store. Much like the Blackberry software, the application lets users place phone calls to people in their contact lists by speaking their names, and initiate Web searches by speaking their search terms. (There’ a nice video here explaining all of the application’s features.) But unlike the Blackberry app, Vlingo’s iPhone app can also be used to search local business listings and see the results on a map—for example, by speaking an inquiry such as “movie theaters in Boston.” And it lets users dictate status-update messages that are posted instantly to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. [click heading for more]

Review: iPhone voice dialers

After a year-and-a-half with my iPhone, I can’t imagine ever going back to my PDA and cell phone—the iPhone runs my life, telling me where I need to be and letting me stay in touch wirelessly. But for all its wizardry, it can’t obey my commands, something even my ancient Motorola phone did admirably. That makes it tough to call someone when I’m on the go and practically impossible to use when I’m driving.

For this round-up, I looked at eight apps that promise to let you make calls by voice command. None of them fill the bill perfectly, but they’re a reasonable alternative to dialing using the keypad or your contact list if you’re not driving. 
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