How Apple could further improve Siri

Commentary: Apple's often helpful voice assistant has gradually evolved overtime but can still be rather clueless. So what aspects of Siri could stand improvement?

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Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Love it or hate it (or sometimes both), Siri always seems eager to please and disappointed when it fails to understand you.

Apple introduced us to Siri in 2011 with the release of iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S. Responding to your questions, comments, and sometimes insults, the voice assistant is designed to serve up answers to your queries as well as perform a variety of tasks to save you from manual labor. Apple has continually upgraded Siri with new skills and more smarts, but it still falls short at times.

Those improvements are more critical than ever now that the concept of a virtual concierge has become all the rage in the mobile world. The voice-activated and predictive Google Now has become a centerpiece feature on Android smartphones, and Microsoft's latest Windows Phone operating system comes equipped with a personal assistant in Cortana.

Apple will likely have additions in store for Siri when it unveils iOS 8 at its Worldwide Developers Conference Monday. In anticipation of the next version of iOS, what features would turn Siri into a more useful and lovable voice assistant?

Voice activation
Siri currently can be triggered only by holding down the home key or moving the phone up to your mouth. But our hands aren't always free to turn on Siri. I've been behind the wheel more than a few times where I needed directions on the spur of the moment and my iPhone was resting comfortably on the passenger seat. If only I had a way to ask Siri where to go without having to stop or pull over.

Apple should take a page from Google by allowing us to activate Siri by voice. Just as users of Google's search app can say "OK, Google" to start a conversation, iPhone users should be able to say "OK, Siri" to tap on the shoulder of Apple's voice assistant.

Third-party app support
In its present form, Siri works only with the built-in functions for the iPhone or iPad. You can tell Siri to open third-party apps. You can tell it to post a message via certain services, such as Twitter and Facebook. But officially, Siri can't help when you're actually trying to use a third-party app to perform a specific task. I'd love to be able to enlist Siri's aid to upload a photo to Flickr or open a specific book from the Kindle app.

Rumors suggest that Apple is eyeing third-party support for Siri. Pointing to a story published by The Information in early March, TechCrunch said that Apple purportedly wants to enhance Siri's ability to play with a wider range of apps. We'll soon see if Apple cooks up any improvements in this area for iOS 8 or whether we'll have to wait until next year.

Learn from its mistakes
Certain voice recognition programs offer a way to correct any mistakes as a result of misinterpreting your words. You can typically highlight the incorrect word or phrase and then train the software to better recognize your pronunciation. In a conversation with Siri, you can tap your question or comment, highlight the wrong word, and then replace it with a different word. But in that case, Siri isn't really learning from its mistake.

Yes, you can tell Siri how to pronounce a word that it's mispronouncing. Now I'd like to see Siri adopt more of the power of a full voice recognition program. As the next step, Siri should have the ability to better understand how you pronounce certain words. Imagine a Siri that doesn't keep steering you in the wrong direction just because it misunderstood one word. That would be a truly helpful voice assistant.

Keep better track of our conversations
Your conversations with Siri are typically short-lived. As long as you keep the Siri screen open, you can scroll back in time to see any previous questions and answers. But close Siri, and all conversations but your most recent one vanish for good. There is a way to view the prior question and answer, but you can't go back any further than that.

I sometimes want to check or refer to a previous question or response as I'm chatting anew with Siri. As such, I'd like to be able to access a history list of our conversations so I can easily jump back to a specific exchange. As one example, Yahoo Messenger gives you the ability to view your recent IM conversations even after you've shut down the program. How about a similar option for Siri?

Read me a story
Siri can already read your email, text messages, reminders, and appointments to you. How about unleashing that capability? I'd love for Siri to be able to read to me other types of items while I'm driving, walking, or otherwise occupied. Maybe I'd like to hear the next chapter in one of my Kindle books or the latest story from CNET. Of course, such a feat would require the aforementioned third-party app support. But I don't see why Apple couldn't expand Siri's storytelling skills.

These are just a few features I'd like to see sprout up in Siri. Feel free to share your own wishlist items in the comments below.

 

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