How Apple could put Siri ahead of the pack

Siri is getting a couple of improvements in iOS 8, but still has a ways to go before it becomes something I would use daily.


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James Martin/CNET

Apple has promised only a small number of tweaks for its Siri voice assistant in iOS 8. Now, that's not to say that new features like song identification through Shazam and hands free voice commands when connected to a power source aren't welcome, but I'm hoping that Siri gets more improvements, even if they're not announced at Apple's event next Tuesday.

Tune in to our live coverage of Apple's event September 9 at 8:45 a.m. PT

Microsoft and Google continue to improve their Siri alternatives with features that Apple can't yet match. Google Now, for example, can automatically present you with contextual cards relaying useful info, and with Cortana you can set reminders linked to specific tasks.

That's why Apple has its work cut out for it to make Siri compete in an increasingly crowded landscape.

Voice activation -- anytime, anywhere

Yes, this is one of the new features I mentioned is coming to iOS 8, but I don't like that it needs to be connected to a power source. Don't get me wrong, I love that I will be able to yell out "Hey, Siri" before asking a question while my phone charges across the room, but I want to be able to use it anywhere.

I imagine the problem here is that in order to listen for you to say "Hey, Siri," the phone has to always be listening, thus draining your battery. The Motorola Moto X already has an always-listening feature, but only because it has a dedicated low-power natural language processor just for listening that minimizes the drain on your battery.

Maybe Apple needs similar tech in a future iPhone to pull this off, but what I'm imagining with an always-on Siri is the ability to call out when you've misplaced your iPhone. "Hey, Siri, where are you?" could replace my primary use for Find my iPhone, letting Siri answer right away. Knowing Apple's creativity with Siri's charming answers, I can imagine her saying "I thought you'd never find me...I'm over here...Getting warmer..." to replace the alert tones that would lead me to my iPhone between the couch cushions.

More importantly, an always-listening iPhone would also mean that whether I was in the car, sitting at a picnic table outside, or even with my iPhone next to me, I could always ask a question on a whim.

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You can use Siri to post to Twitter or Facebook, but it should work with more apps. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Third-party app support

One thing I think a lot of people have been waiting for is for Siri to interact with third-party apps on your iPhone. You can already launch apps with Siri ("Play Angry Birds") and it does work with many of the core Apple apps such as Reminders, the Calendar, and iMessage. It also lets you post to Twitter and set Facebook statuses, but only because they are integrated with iOS.

If developers could make Siri a part of their apps, you could say things like "Ask Foursquare where the best burger joint is nearby" or even "Siri, what's my checking account balance?" and Siri could access the appropriate apps to get your answer.

I'm sure there are numerous ways developers can think of for Siri to interact with apps, and it would be move toward Apple making Siri an integral part of every day phone use.

Health app integration

We already know that the Health app is coming to iOS 8 and will talk to other health trackers to help you count steps, let you monitor your food intake throughout the day, and -- while we can't be sure it's coming -- might integrate with some sort of wearable (iWatch? We don't know what it will be called).

What I think might be cool though is to be out on your walk or run, and be able to say "Hey, Siri, how far have I run so far?" or maybe "How many calories have I burned?" or "What's my current heart rate?" (if you have a wearable) and have Siri give you the info through your earbuds. I imagine this would require access to Maps as well and maybe you would have to set it up at the start of your workout, but it would be a great way to check in while exercising.

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I know it can't access the Internet, but what about Apple apps on my iPhone? Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Offline mode

This is another Siri feature people have been waiting for, and seems reasonable to me that it could at least be available for core apps. Obviously asking a question that requires Wikipedia wouldn't be possible because you need a connection to the Internet, but things like setting reminders, starting a timer, or adding an event to your calendar all happen on your iPhone. In these instances, it simply doesn't make sense to require a connection.

Even if you wanted the core apps to sync up with other devices (as in the Calendar and Reminders examples), it could just wait until you did have a connection to automatically sync up with iCloud.

Access to AirPlay

Another feature I'd like to see is the ability to say "Siri, play on my wireless speakers." Maybe it would be a one-time setup in the beginning, but from then on, you would just say the word at home and your music would fill the room automatically.

This could be useful for Apple TV owners as well, because you could be on your iPad watching something on Netflix, for example, then just say the word to play it on your Apple TV.

This isn't like a ground-breaking technology or anything, but there is something kind of "Star Trek" about saying "Put it onscreen" to have what's playing on your tablet or phone instantly switch over to your television.

Final thoughts

The tweaks to Siri in iOS 8 that are likely to be announced September 9 are definitely useful, and I'm particularly excited to try out the new music identification features. Both Google and Microsoft have already added it to their personal voice assistants, but it's nice to see it coming to iOS as well.

Still, the problem with Siri right now is that it seems more like a "Hey, look what my phone can do!" type of feature rather than something you use every day. In other words, it's neat for the first few weeks, but I don't find myself using it very often. If Apple wants Siri to really take hold, it has to make it become a part of your daily use by letting Siri have access to more of your iPhone's functions.

 

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