Apple spruces up Siri, making it more proactive in iOS 9

Borrowing a page from Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's voice assistant will be able to remind you of appointments and events -- without you having to tell it to -- when iOS 9 debuts later this year.

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With iOS 9, Siri will remind you of things based on the time of day or your location. CNET

Apple's voice assistant, Siri, has a new look as well as a host of enhancements.

At its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple unveiled some key changes to its voice assistant. Siri boasts a new interface so it looks a bit more appealing. But perhaps most notably, Siri will be able to remind you of appointments and other events without you having to tell it to. That's a key enhancement as it's been one of the most unique features to Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant.

With the upcoming changes to Siri, Apple's mobile OS will be more proactive. For example, Siri can remind you of things based on the time of day or your location. For example, you can say something to Siri like "Remind me about this when I get home," and it will remind you about whatever you may be viewing on your iPhone. Siri can even know what you're up to. You can tell it to "Remind me to take my coffee off my roof when I get in my car," and it should do just that.

With iOS 9, Siri will also play a more powerful role in search. The voice assistant will be able to search for music and other content online or in iTunes and play a song directly from your search results. It will be able to search for specific items, such as sports scores. And if you search for an app, Siri can find content within that app.

You can tell Siri to do something like "Show me photos from Utah last August." And when you receive a phone call from a number you don't recognize, Siri will be able to look in your email to find out who the caller might be and list the person on the screen.

Siri can also offer suggestions on who you should contact for meetings, apps you should download, and apps you may want to use at the present time of day.

Apple also has some new tricks up Siri's sleeve for the Apple Watch. In version 2 of the Apple Watch OS, you can enable Siri to start you on a workout. Simply raise your watch and tell Siri: "Start workout." In response, Siri will trigger the workout app. So, for example, you can go for a 300-calorie bike ride, and Siri will kick off your workout without you having to touch the watch at all.

In Apple Watch OS 2, Siri will also tap into transit information, which shows you arrival and departure times, nearby stations and other transit information. You'll be able to ask Siri for step-by-step directions by saying something like: "Hey, Siri. Give me bus directions to the Ferry Building."

And at home, Siri will support HomeKit, Apple's software for connecting to and controlling accessories in your house. So you might be able to tell Siri to turn on a light or open the garage door. Finally, you can use Siri to send a message or reply to an email from your wrist just by pressing the crown on the watch and then dictating your message or response.

Siri will also play the role of virtual DJ with the new Apple Music service. You can already tell Siri to play specific songs and albums from your local iOS device. But with the upcoming Apple Music service, you can enlist Siri's musical skills to play songs that match a certain condition. For example, you can tell Siri to play the top 10 songs in the Alternative genre or play the top tune from 1982.

"The best assistants are proactive," Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, said at WWDC. "In iOS 9 we're bringing proactivity to the system."

Siri has been updated and improved over the years. But with greater competition, Siri needs more help if Apple expects more people to use it. Consumers don't necessarily purchase a smartphone based on the quality of the voice assistant, but it is a factor that could sway a buyer one way or the other.

Apple bought Siri, a digital voice assistant, in early 2010 and launched the service on the iPhone 4S in October 2011. By simply holding down the "Home" button on the iPhone or saying "Hey, Siri," users can issue voice commands to do things such as check the weather, set alarms, launch apps and search the Web. The feature requires the use of a Wi-Fi or cellular network since it taps into Apple's servers to process and return the commands as soon as they're issued.

Apple has made improvements to the voice recognition program over the years, but the feature still continues to be criticized for not being very useful. Still, it's a key feature of the Apple Watch, allowing users to dictate messages or search for items on the device's small, 1.5-inch display that lacks a keyboard.

Siri faces serious competition from other virtual-assistant apps such as Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana. Both companies continue to improve their Siri alternatives with features that Apple can't yet match. Google Now, for example, can automatically present users with contextual cards relaying useful info, and the company in late May revealed its upcoming Google Now On Tap, which is a sort of "Help me, Google" button that tries to bring you information before you ask for it.

Google Now is available both for Android and iOS devices through the standard Google app. A test conducted last July by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster found that Google Now was more accurate than Siri.

And now Microsoft's Cortana is headed toward iOS owners. A Cortana companion app will roll out to Android phones at the end of June and to iPhones later this year. Cortana can remind you of meetings, air flights and other activities in your schedule, something Siri can't do. Some of those who use and grow to like Cortana on a desktop or laptop might just be persuaded to buy a Windows Phone handset equipped with Cortana. So this is the ideal time for Siri to start supporting reminders.

Siri has quietly become more popular, according to Apple, serving over a billion requests a week. Over the past year, Siri has seen a 40 percent reduction in word error rates to 5 percent. And Siri is now 40 percent faster at responding, said Federighi.

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