Ina Fried

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Will Apple’s Siri Make Talking to Your Phone Seem Normal?

While Siri was probably the biggest technology advance that Apple introduced on Tuesday, it remains unclear just how ready smartphone owners are to spend time talking to their phones.

The fact is that voice recognition has been a part of cellphones since long before their was an iPhone. Voice dialing has been commonplace since the 1990s. The issue has always been how good is the recognition and how powerful are the capabilities.

What Apple is promising with Siri is a leap forward in both the amount of things one can do, as well as in the ability to do those things using just natural speech. While prior voice control handled things like dialing and playing a particular song, Siri promises to answer all manner of queries, regardless of how they are phrased.

Apple is not alone, though, in pursuing speech as a more dominant form of input.

Both Google and Microsoft have been beefing up the voice capabilities of their products as well. The just-released Mango version of Windows Phone allows a user to have text messages read to them and to dictate replies. That’s in addition to existing Windows Phone features that stem from the company’s Tellme acquisition. Microsoft is also working to expand its use of speech technology into all manner of other devices from cars to Windows laptops to the Xbox.

Android, meanwhile, has an app that adds a variety of “voice actions” to Android, including the ability to dictate a memo, get directions, search the Web and more.

Beyond the competitive issues, though, there is also the question of just how cool it will be to talk to one’s phone. If Apple can convince people it is cool, there is a lot of opportunity there. That said, Siri has also debuted to plenty of mockery.

A Twitter user posing as HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” got in a couple good one-liners.

“Siri thinks she’s so cool because she has voice recognition but can she lip read? That’s the sign of a truly awesome computer,” @HAL9000 posted. Others have noted that the name Siri sounds a bit like some not pleasant words in certain languages, such as Japanese, where it sounds a bit like a word for buttocks. Of course, almost any name can be twisted into something not so nice, as this classic Nicholas Cage Saturday Night Live sketch reminds us.

I had a brief chance to play around with Siri yesterday and was impressed that it could handle queries seemingly no matter how they were phrased.

“Do I have a meeting at 2?” or “How hot is it?” all worked. The query “Where can I get a taco?” brings up a list of nearby Mexican restaurants and their Yelp ratings.

There are some limitations. Siri, for example, lets one hear an incoming text message and dictate a reply. However, there doesn’t appear to be a way to have that dictated message read back to make sure that Siri got everything correct.

For now, Siri is in beta and only works in a couple of languages, though Apple is promising additional features and language support to come.

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