Apple’s Siri search feature for the iPhone 4S thinks the Nokia Lumia 900 is the best phone ever? Actually, it’s Wolfram Alpha that thinks this, based on all of four user reviews. While it’s a chuckle that Siri seemed to be recommending the Nokia, it’s a better reminder that Siri itself doesn’t answer questions but provides answers from others. Indeed, that’s why the Nokia Lumia itself arguably recommends the iPhone and Android.
We’ve been here before, such last December, when Apple was accused of preventing Siri from finding abortion clinics. Actually, that was largely down to abortion clinics themselves not calling themselves that, as my post from last year explains: Why Siri Can’t Find Abortion Clinics & How It’s Not An Apple Conspiracy.
Say What, Siri?
What’s going on now? It seems to have started with WMPoweruser, a Windows Phone site, which published a screenshot showing how Siri, when asked “What’s the best cell phone ever,” listed the Nokia Lumia 900:
WMPoweruser correctly explained that the information was actually coming from Wolfram Alpha, which provides certain types of answers to those who search using Siri. Similarly, Yelp provides some answers, as does Google.
Still, the story went on to hit a number of tech blogs since then. MG Siegler follows it around, and Techmeme has a round-up of stories. Me, I thought I’d trace the data itself back to the source, Wolfram Alpha.
Say What, Wolfram Alpha?
If you ask on Wolfram “What’s the best cell phone ever,” it comes back with the Lumia listed like this:
This is the listing that “powers” what some saw on Siri.
Note the two arrows. The first is Wolfram is deciding to show “best mobile phones” sorted by the highest customer reviews. It picks the top one from a full list shown further down on the page. The second arrow shows how many reviews are apparently getting the Lumia that top rating.
It’s a total of four. Four is a pretty small number. You really want a lot more reviews than that before you go declaring anything to be the best.
Say What, Best Buy?
You can’t actually see these reviews on Wolfram Alpha, but I can show you where they’re almost certainly coming from. Best Buy.
At the bottom of the page is this:
Click on the image if you want to enlarge it. See the arrow? Clicking on the “Source information” link that it’s coming from makes the Source Information box it’s pointing to appear. The source turns out to be Best Buy.
Unfortunately, you can’t click to any actual list that Best Buy might have of “the best cell phones ever.” But I can go to the Best Buy page for the Lumia 900 and see what’s shown:
Here, we can see that the Lumia has a 5 star rating like Wolfram shows. This time, it’s based on six reviews. That means Wolfram is probably a little out-of-date. But then look at the bottom. Actually, this has a 4.4 star rating, based on 11 reviews. What’s happening there? I don’t know. Maybe these are reviews for all colors of the Lumia.
Now, what I really want is the list of top rated phones from Best Buy, to see if they match the list Wolfram has. As it turns out, that’s pretty easy. There’s a mobile phones page, with an option to filter to top-rated phones.
Doing this, it turns out the top rated phone is the Rocketfish Mobile-Micro USB Data Transfer Cable. I know that seems weird, but when you speak into one side of it, the person at the other end can hear really well.
OK, there’s some glitch. But after that, it’s the iPhones coming up:
I kept trying to find a way to get Best Buy to give me a list like Wolfram had. I could never exactly replicate it. But I got close. That screenshot above? By default, top rated phones are also shown weighted by top selling, which makes sense. You’re getting a combination of metrics.
If I sorted by purely highest rated, the HTC Trophy came first, followed by the iPhone. The same thing happened if I kept that sort but narrowed to “Best Buy items.” If I instead narrowed to online-only items, then I could make the Lumia 900 show up.
Of course, Wolfram will use its own mechanism for sorting. The bottom line is that Wolfram has ratings from Best Buy, and it’s not trying to weight those in any particular fashion such as number of reviews or number of purchases.
The Lumia rates tops on Wolfram because four people gave it 5 stars, versus 86 people who give the AT&T 16GB version of the iPhone 4S an overall rating of 4.7. The Lumia is batting 1.000 after being up to bat only 4 times. The iPhone is batting .940 after 47 at bats. Or something like that. I like baseball, but I’m not a baseball stats expert.
Say What, Lumia?
All this got me thinking. What would the Lumia give me if I spoke to it? The Lumia, after all, features voice search like Siri, only it brings back results from Bing.
A search for “What’s the best cell phone ever?” brought back answers that were polluted with news stories about what’s happening with Siri and the Lumia today. So, I tried a search for “best cell phones,” figuring that was fair. A search for the singular “best cell phone” also gave me the same top sites:
These results come from Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and the top site listed is a review of what CNET considers the top five cell phones. The best phone on the list the Lumia recommends, via Bing’s results, is the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx:
The Lumia is even recommending the iPhone over itself, if you want to attribute this list as a Lumia recommendation. The iPhone ranks third; the Lumia ranks fourth.
Meanwhile, The Next Web did that same thing but with a different search, “What is the best smartphone ever,” bringing up a review from Business Insider that recommends the iPhone.
Say What, Siri?
As for Siri, I can’t get it to do the same thing for me, not as WMPoweruser found nor when trying things like “What is the best smartphone ever,” which Apple Insider used.
Nope, for me, Siri either gives answers that Apple’s Siri team have programmed in as jokes (and which predate what happened today), or occasionally I get a local search:
As I said, some of these jokey responses did exist before. Why some started getting them to bring up Wolfram Alpha instead isn’t clear, but Siri can be strange and mysterious that way.
Postscript, May 14: CNET has a story up suggestion that Siri has suddenly changed to these jokey responses. As I said, I was pretty sure they existed before. I was correct, as you’ll see in these examples from last year.
By the way, I coincidentally wrote a column today over at CNET about what it’s like living with phones for all three major smartphone platforms, the iPhone, Android and Windows Phone.
I like them all in various ways. Windows Phone is nice, in fact nicer than Android, when it comes to doing email (the iPhone is even better). Android has its own strengths over the iPhone, just as sometimes the iPhone is better than Android.
Ultimately, what’s the best smartphone will be down to the person who actually uses it.
Now I’m off to order some tomato soup. Because it’s raining outside, and I don’t want to put on real shoes:
Postscript: See my follow-up story, With Fix In Place, Wolfram Alpha Explains How Siri “Recommended” The Lumia By Mistake