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Commentary Phones

Apple's new Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12 could get annoying fast

Commentary: That said, it's got one knockout feature.

apple-wwdc-2018-1069

Shortcuts are new to iOS 12.

James Martin/CNET

I have a thing about companies like Google and Apple trying to make out like digital assistants are our friends. Although I love the technology, I find the implication of making them more human pathetically desperate and ridiculously self-serving. But to me the biggest offense is that in becoming more communicative, Google Assistant and Siri are eating up more of our time.

I'm wary that new features designed to make Apple's Siri voice assistant more useful in iPhones and iPads running iOS 12 will prove to become more of a timesuck than it already is.

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Siri shortcuts are a set of features centered around a new app, Shortcuts, that uses a combination of tools to predict what you want to do. It also lets you customize commands that run through a series of steps, like simultaneously launching a navigation app, texting your ETA, heating up your house and playing your podcast. 

All of this sounds great on paper, but watching it unfold during Apple's demo at WWDC 2018, all I can see is how invasive and irritating Siri's proactive suggestions could be throughout your day if you don't keep a tight rein on what it suggests.  

Scenario 1: Lock screen shortcut

The first scenario imagines the presenter, Kim Beverit, a leader in Apple's shortcuts project, getting ready to leave for the day. She sees from her lock screen the suggestion to use the Philz Coffee app to place a mobile order for her "usual" drink. Kim says yes, presumably placing the order at just the right time so her drink's still fresh when she gets there.

Potential problem: If Siri decides to turn common tasks into daily ones, and then clutters your lock screen when you don't actually want to see the suggestion -- if it's for a mobile order like this, it could start to feel like Philz Coffee is getting rather pushy. Also, this from my colleague Patrick Holland: "I think I know when I want a coffee."

If you're able to quickly edit which apps are allowed to make suggestions, or what kind of suggestions you'd like (e.g. no lock screen suggestions at all), we might be in business.

Scenario 2: Search shortcuts  

When you pull down the search bar, Shortcuts might scrounge your calendar and see you're late to a meeting -- if so, it could generate a text to the organizer. It might prompt you to call your friends on their birthday, or turn your phone to do-not-disturb mode while you're at the theater.

Potential problem: Without a way for Siri to prioritize your events and the people in your life, you could see a lot more of these than you'd like. You may appreciate a reminder to call your brother on his birthday, but I doubt you'll want to call your best friend from preschool who you rarely keep in touch with or your neighbor who collects your mail when you're on vacation.

And I can't help but laugh to myself at the thought of texting my boss, who sits within earshot, every time I'm running a few minutes late to a meeting. If I could set up specific rules -- when my GPS location is more than 5 minutes from the office and I'm going to be more than 5 minutes late -- that might make the suggestion truly useful. 

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In the Search pull-down, these events are identified by "shortcuts" e.g. Shortcuts Launch meeting. It'd be better to just see "Launch meeting."

I also like the idea of clicking a button on the lock screen to automate a setting, but its usefulness truly depends on the implementation. It I can set the do-not-disturb time at the movie for 3 hours (including previews), that's useful. Otherwise, I don't really want to wait to walk out of the movie theater for it to snap out of this mode.

Read: Siri Shortcuts won't beat Google Assistant or Alexa

Scenario 3: Simple is best

You can create custom shortcuts or download hundreds of premade suggestions.

Apple

In this scenario, Apple's Beverit shows how to add a custom shortcut for "travel plans." You can record the command easily enough, and when you invoke it, Siri says something like, "Kayak says: Your hotel is at 929 South Broadway. You can check in after 3 p.m." 

Potential problem: I already have a pet peeve about my overly chatty Google Home telling me more than I need to know (like, I don't need it to prove it knows my name or wish me good morning and good night). Do I really need to know this came from Kayak? Don't I already know that, since I programmed this in the first place? Maybe it could just flash the information in an easily read format.

Scenario 4: Confirmation overload

In the final example, Bevit shows off Shortcuts' best feature: A custom profile you can set up, like a macro program that runs through all your steps. In this case, the profile "Heading Home" opens map navigation, sends a text, turns on home appliances, and then an app through Apple CarPlay. 

Potential problem: It took Siri nearly 9 seconds to read back the information: "You will get there in one hour. I sent a message to Sheryl. Your thermostat is set to 70 degrees and I turned on the fan. Playing KQED radio." 

Even if you chose not to read out the details (and just see it on your screen), this confirmation window would get more annoying the more custom commands you use. I would probably rather feel a vibration pattern when it's all done, or see the screen flash a confirmation color.

Still, being able to create a few key profiles and then launch them is a feature I can get behind. I just hope that Apple has thought of ways to make Siri helpful behind the scenes. Too in-your-face and iPhone owners may be just as likely to turn off shortcuts entirely.

iOS 12: Siri shortcuts, group FaceTime and "Memoji" -- Animoji of you.

WWDC 2018: Everything Apple just announced.