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Siri: Not A “Search Engine” But You Might Use It Like One
When I’ve spoken in the past to people at Siri we’ve discussed and they’ve struggled a bit with how to present and “position” what they’re doing. Described as a “virtual personal assistant” — and called the “Siri Assistant” in fact in its formal launch — the company’s much anticipated iPhone app has arrived. There will be other apps for other mobile platforms, as well as a major carrier deal to be announced relatively soon.
Siri is not a search engine technically and it’s not intended to be a replacement for Google. It’s intended to enable you to do more with your voice and your phone in fewer clicks or moves. Rather than showing you information or lists of choices it’s intended to be “transactional,” to help accomplish things. Siri “helps you get things done when you’re on the go” says the demo below.
It’s another major step away from the much derided “10 blue links.”
Siri provides a voice-enabled, “conversational” interface (using speech recognition from Nuance) and taps into a range of APIs, from companies such as Yelp, Citysearch, Yahoo, Taxi Magic, WeatherBug, Rotten Tomatoes, Google Maps, Eventful and Allmenus.com among others. These are launch partners but others will be added. Eventually, you’ll be able to specify preferred sites (I like Kayak rather than Orbitz for example).
The Siri magic — the technology comes out of SRI with funding from DARPA — exists “in the middle,” between the speech recognition and the back end, tied to the third party APIs. There’s a very sophisticated “engine” and algorithm there that enables the service to understand queries and commands such as:
- “What’s going on for kids this weekend?”
- “Get tickets for 2 to Avatar in 3D IMAX tonight”
- “Remember to contact Jay tomorrow about coffee”
- “I need a cab”
Siri understands these requests and commands and offers up “actionable” options such as buying a movie ticket or making an OpenTable reservation. So rather than navigating to OpenTable or using the OpenTable app and then finding the restaurant and an available time, one can simply make a verbal request and be taken to the page where the reservation may be executed in a single click or acceptance.
As the examples indicate, one can speak to Siri in a more natural way. Rather than speaking like a robot and saying “Open Table” to minimize error, you can say something more elaborate and “conversational” such as, “I’d like a reservation tonight around 7:30 at Le Cheval.”
Siri describes what it does in lay terms as follows:
A virtual assistant gives different answers depending on individual preferences and personal context (place, time, history), and if you give it permission, learns more about you so that it can shorten your time-to-task.. Information you teach Siri in one domain (e.g. movies) is applied automatically to opportunities rising from other domains. Any personal information you provide Siri is stored in a highly secure, PCI-compliant co-location center, and used only with your explicit permission to accelerate your task completion.
It integrates with the phone very deeply and becomes more personalized over time. The company makes money (right now) from affiliate referrals to the various partners; there isn’t a plan for any conventional advertising (to my knowledge). The company not long ago raised $24 million in funding from a number of VC firms.
The speech recognition and functioning of the service are impressive if imperfect.
Stepping back, there are a number of “voice search” tools and services for mobile, including Google’s for the iPhone and Android, Bing for the iPhone and Windows Mobile, Vlingo, Nuance Dragon Search and others. This is something that at first blush resembles them but turns out to be quite different. It’s not a voice front end on top of SERPs; it goes much further.
On mobile devices, voice interfaces, location awareness and the camera (as a search and input tool) have begun to dramatically expand as well as differentiate “search” on smartphones from traditional PC search. With Siri we now have something that in one way seems like “mobile search” but ultimately feels different — like an advancement.