Why Apple Had To Release Siri Half-Baked

Siri has been having a bad week. Gizmodo’s Mat Honan called Apple’s voice-response service “a lie.” Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, who rarely has bad things to say about Apple efforts, said it “isn’t up to Apple’s usual level of fit and finish, not by a long shot.”  And my colleague Patrick Moorhead tweeted that inconsistency was leading him to reduce his use ofSiri screen shot the service.

Hang in there, Pat, Siri needs you. I share the frustrations and annoyances of Siri users, but the only way she’s going to get better.

Here’s what I think is going on, with the usual caveat that Apple only shares its thinking with people it can legally keep from talking about it, leaving the rest of us free to speculate. Apple doesn’t much like public beta testing. Before a major release, Microsoft will typically make a new version of Windows or Office to tens of thousand of users for months,  allowing developers to find and fix most of the bugs. Apple limits beta testing mostly to internal users and selected developers. It can get away with this because the real-world combinations of Mac or iOS hardware and software are orders of magnitude simpler than in the Windows world.

Siri is very different. The artificial intelligence engine behind the service lacks any inherent understanding of language. It has to be trained to make connections, to extract meaning from a semantic jumble. To even get to the databases and search tools Siri uses to answer question, it first must contract a query from the free-form natural language that humans begin mastering long before they can talk, but which machines find daunting. (See Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Land post for an excellent analysis of Siri’s struggles with queries about abortion clinics.)

The secret to machine learning is feedback. I expect that Siri carefully logs every failed query, along with what the user does next. And algorithmic analysis of those logs, combined perhaps with some human intervention, means that every mistake contributes to the process of correction. In other words, Siri learns from its errors and the more people use it, the faster it will get better. Benoit Maison has a good explanation of how this works on his blog.

The server-based learning creates a very different situation from the troubled handwriting recognition that helped doom Apple’s Newton 15 years ago (and to which some critics have compared Siri’s troubles.) Newtons were products of a preconnected age, so there was no way for the community of MessagePads to learn from each other’s mistakes. And the extremely limited processing power memory on the Newton itself made the claim that it would learn from its errors an empty promise. The Newton could never get past “egg freckles.”

Now, all of this said, Apple’s approach to Siri is a distinct departure from its usual practice of under-promising and over-delivering. It properly labeled Siri as a “beta” product. But, at the same time, it is using the half-backed feature as a major selling point for the iPhone 4S, hitting it hard in commercials. This is a disservice to customers, who have learned to expect a high polish on Apple products, and has saddled Siri with unreasonably high expectations that now are inspiring a backlash. Apple had to release Siri prematurely to let the learning process go forward. Let’s hope that Apple did not do the service permanent damage with its hype.



When Siri Becomes A Member of the Family

Siri is much more than just a useful feature for Apple’s iPhone 4S. Siri is also incredibly strategic for Apple. I have written quite a bit on the subject of how software platforms become sticky. The point I continually emphasize is that we who study the industry need to understand “ecosystems” more than products. What I mean by that is that consumers, when they buy technology products, are moving from a product buying mentality to an ecosystem buying mentality – they just don’t know it yet.

Products by themselves are not sticky and have very little consumer loyalty. In terms of products, brand or lowest price is what keeps consumers coming back. But as we transition from personal to personalized computing, consumers will stay loyal to ecosystems more than simply brand or product, even though those play into the ecosystem. Think of these products as screens which allow consumers to tap into a rich ecosystem driven by software and services.

As I evaluate products, platforms, and companies’ strategies, I am looking for things that invite consumers into an ecosystem and then encourage ecosystem loyalty. This is essentially the root of differentiation going forward.

If we look at the platform as the basis for an ecosystem, then right now the companies with ecosystems are Apple, Microsoft, Google (with Android) and RIM. Some ecosystems are more fleshed-out than others, but as a baseline those are the four — for now.

The key to any of these companies’ long-term success is to continue developing innovations that keep consumers loyal to their ecosystem. When this happens, consumers are less likely to switch from one platform to another. For example, consumers who have invested time, money, and energy in Apple’s ecosystem are less likely to jump to Android for their next phone due to the high cost and inconvenience of switching.

This is why I think Siri is so incredibly strategic for Apple. Siri in my opinion is the first step in moving computing from personal to personalized — something that happens when your personal electronics learn and understand things about you without you having to personalize it yourself.

When you use Siri, even though it is in beta and in a very early stage of its life-cycle, you observe how it learns and remembers certain key things about you. Inevitably over time as Siri learns more about you and hits her groove as a true personal assistant, this feature will keep you loyal to Apple’s ecosystem.

Credit: AP
Imagine if over the period of a year or two, Siri has developed into a true personal assistant adding value all the way through task automation, discovery of places and events based on personal preference, geo-location assistance and more. After all the time you have spent living with Siri, who is learning quite a bit about you in order to be valuable, would you really fire her and go buy a different smart phone just because it is cheaper?

I don’t know a single executive with a personal assistant (who they often consider as a member of their family) who would fire that assistant just because he or she can find another one who’s cheaper. Rather, when you find a good assistant you hold on to them and stay loyal.

In fact, ask any executive what they hate most about hiring a new assistant and they will tell you it is the initial training process.

The same will be true with Siri as the technology evolves and gets better and even more useful. The amount of hours put into training Siri to understand critical elements of your life, preferences, habits and more would require quite an undertaking and a headache to simply start over with another device, assuming another device has such a feature of course.

This is why Siri is strategic for Apple. Siri is another piece of the Apple ecosystem that will command consumer loyalty. This is why Apple competitors should be concerned. The more people Apple gets into their ecosystem, the less likely they will consider competitors’ products year in and year out.

Ecosystem loyalty will be the battleground of the future and companies who do not build a healthy ecosystem that drives consumer loyalty will be in for an uphill battle.

Why Siri is Strategic for Apple

Now that I have had some time to work with the new iPhone, and especially the new Siri Voice technology, I have been able to form a couple of opinions about this products market impact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, from a big picture stand point, Apple’s use of voice and speech as a form of input marks the third time Apple has influenced the market when it comes to UI design and navigation. The first time they did it with the mouse and its integration into the Mac, and then with touch by making it the key input for the iPhone. Now comes voice, which I believe will usher in the era of voice input and will start to dramatically impact the future of man-machine interface.

While voice input is a significant part of Siri’s feature set within the new iPhone 4S, it is its AI and speech comprehension technology that really makes it unique. More importantly, the more I use it the more it gets to know who I am, where I live, what I like, who I am related to and the more info it gets on me, the better it gets as well. For example, with in a few searches for Italian restaurants it now knows that this is a type of ethnic cuisine I like and remembers that. So, the next time ask it to find me an Italian restaurant, it becomes more accurate in its recommendations. It now knows my home address and office address and I can give it commands that play off these locations. For example, I can say,“remind me to call my wife when I get to the office” and as I walk into the door of my office complex it reminds me to call her.

There are hundreds of ways that, once it begins to learn more about me, it can be quite useful and helpful. And as Apple has said, they will continue to link it to more powerful databases over time, giving it even greater reach to the information that I might need in my daily life. That linked with its continuing ability to learn about me makes Siri perhaps the stickiest application I have ever used. In the short time I have used it, it has become almost indispensable in a couple of areas.

First, I now mostly speak my tweets and messages instead of typing them in. Second, I use it to input short emails as well. Having the Siri microphone integrated into the keyboard makes it so simple to use and this is now my first line for data entry.

But the third way I use it is related to my business. As a market researcher, I have to do a lot of percentage comparisons when I look at various numbers. Over the years I have become pretty good at working out this math in my mind, but this method is not very precise. I normally come within one-to-three points of the correct answer and in a lot of cases that may be all I need for our predictions since these are based on known data and are informed projections. And in the past if I wanted precise percentages I would bring out the old calculator. But now when I want this number I just ask Siri and she does not guess. Her answers are always exact–and fast.

The other thing it does extremely well is deal with appointments. I just tell it to schedule an appointment and it is done. And if there is a conflict it tells me that as well. Think of it as a smart personal assistant.

BTW, this is not Apple’s first stab at this voice, speech AI concept. In fact, they pretty highlighted it in their Knowledge Navigator multimedia video they did in 1989. In this video it shows a professor interacting with a computer asking it questions and getting direct answers from it in ways that Siri does now. Ironically, this video and futuristic thinking was the brainchild of former CEO John Scully and former Apple Fellow Alan Kay, one of the most futuristic thinkers we have in the world today. But at the time, the technology was not there to do what was projected in the Knowledge Navigator. Even more impressive is the fact that while the Knowledge Navigator was apparently connected to a very large computer, Siri is being done in a pocket computer.

Now, as Siri develops a strong database about me and my likes and dislikes, it is quickly becoming indispensable as a mobile assistant. I suspect that the more Siri and I become closer and it gets to know me better, I am going to be highly unlikely to use something else by another platform. Thus, the stickiness. Something that makes it very likely that I will stay within the Apple ecosystem as long as they continue to innovate and make Siri smarter and even more useful.

Nuance Exec on iPhone 4S, Siri, and the Future of Speech

Though the iPhone 4S appears nearly identical to the current iPhone 4, it is, as my colleague Tim Bajarin points out a revolutionary device because of its voice-based Siri interface. For the past 20 years, we humans have learned to point and click, but this has never been a natural way to interact with our environment. Touch and speech, on the other hand, have been around since we were living in caves.

Photo of Vald Sejnoha
Nuance CTO Vlad Sejnoha

“Speech is no longer an add-on,” says Vladimir Sejnoha, chief technical officer of Nuance, probably the world’s leading speech technology company. “It is a fundamental building block when designing the next generation of user interfaces.”

Sejnoha is faithful to the code of omerta that Apple imposes on its vendors. Although Nuance has supplied technology both to Apple and to Siri before its 2010 acquisition by Apple, he declined to discuss Nuance’s role in the iPhone 4S: “We have a great relationship with Apple. We license technology to them for a number of products. I am not able to go into greater detail. But we are very excited by what they have done. It’s a huge validation of the maturity of the speech market.”

But Sejnoha made no effort to hide his enthusiasm for the Siri approach. “It allows you to find functionality or content that is not even visible,” he says. “It provides a new dimension to smartphone interfaces, which have been sophisticated but shrunken-down desktop metaphors.”

It’s has been a long, hard slog for speech to become a core user interface technology. It took a good thirty years, from the late 60s to the late 90s for speech recognition—the ability to turn spoken words into text—to become practical. “Speech recognition is not completely solved,” says Sejnoha. “We have made great strides over the generations and the environment has changed in our favor. We now have connected systems that can send data through the clouds and update the speech models on devices.”

Recognition alone is a necessary but hardly sufficient tool for building a speech interface. For years, speech input systems have let users do little—sometimes nothing—more than speak menu commands. This made speech very useful in situations were hands-free operation was desirable or necessary, but left speech as a poor second choice where point-and-click or touch controls were available.

The big change embodied by Siri is the marriage of speech recognition with advanced natural language processing. The artificial intelligence, which required both advances in the underlying algorithms and leaps in processing power both on mobile devices and the servers that share the workload, allows software to understand not just words but the intentions behind them. “Set up an appointment with Scott Forstall for 3 pm next Wednesday” requires a program to integrate calendar, contact list, and email apps, create and send and invitation, and come back with an appropriate spoken response.

Sejnoha sees Siri in the iPhone as just a beginning.  “Lots of handset OEMs are working on it,” he says. “There is a deep need for differentiation in Andoid and Apple will only light a fire under that. Our model is to work closely with customers and build unique systems tailored to their visions.” And while a speech interface can drive search, it can also become an alternative to it: “One consequence of using natural language in the user interface is direct access to information. We can figure out what you are looking for and take you directly there. You don’t always have to go through a traditional search portal. It will change some business models.”

Nor do the opportunities stop at handsets. “Speech is a big theme for in-car apps because that is a hands busy, eyes busy environment,” Sejnoha says. “All the automotive OEMs are working on next-generation connected systems. The industry is undergoing revolutionary change.”

The health care market is another hot spot.  “Natural language is taking center stage in health care,” Sejnoha says. “We are mining data and using the results to populate electronic health records.” Nuance recently signed a deal with IBM to provide technology for a speech front-end to the health care implementation of its Watson question-answering system.

The key to the next breakthroughs in speech technology, Sejnoha says,  is making effective use of the vast amount of  speech data that now exists, a challenge that has also attracted Nuance competitors Google and Microsoft. “Most algorithms use machine learning and are very data-hungry,” he says. “No one knows yet what to do with tens of thousands of hours of speech data. The race to do that is one. We are doing fundamental research and have a relationship with IBM Research as well. It requires a broad array of techniques to model speech in a robust way and to learn the long tail statistically and the build techniques that can benefit from large amounts of data. It’s a very exciting time.”



Why We Witnessed History at the iPhone 4S Launch

While some people were disappointed that Apple did not introduce the iPhone 5, most pretty much missed the significance of the event and the fact that they were witnessing history.

In 1984, when Steve Jobs introduced the Mac, he did something quite historic. He introduced the Mac’s graphical user interface. But he actually topped himself with the introduction of another technology-the mouse. In essence, he introduced the next user input device that has been at the heart of personal computing for nearly two decades.

What’s interesting about this is that he did not invent the GUI. That came from Xerox Parc. And he did not invent the mouse. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse. But by marrying them to his OS he reinvented the GUI and OS and gave us a completely new way to deliver the man-machine interface through the mouse. Until that time all computer input was done by textual typing.

Then, in 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone, Jobs and team did it again. He created the touch user interface and this time married it to his iOS. He did not invent touch computing. That technology has been around for 20 years via pen input or minimally within desktop touch UI’s such as those used in HP’s Touchsmart desktops. But he integrated it within iOS and gave the world a completely new way to interact with small, handheld computers. With the new touch gestures part of their laptop trackpad designs, they have even extended it to their core Mac portable computing platform as well. In essence, Jobs second UI act was to bring touch UI’s to mainstream computing.

Now, with the introduction of SIRI, integrated into iOS and a core part of the new iPhone OS, he and the Apple team have given to the world what we will look back on and realize is the next major user input technology-Voice and Speech. As reader Hari Seldon points out, the real breakthrough we will come to realize is in Siri’s “applied artificial intelligence.” It is its speech comprehension that will be its greatest advancement.

Again, he did not invent this technology. But Apple’s genius is to keep trying to make the man-machine interface easier to use and with each form, be it the mouse, touch, or voice, Apple has been the main company to popularize these new inputs and thus help advance the overall way man communicates with machines.

I have personally witnessed all three of these historical technology introductions. When the Mac was introduced in 1984, I was sitting third row center at the Foothill Community College’s auditorium. Then in 2007, I was at Moscone West, fourth row Center when Jobs and team introduced the iPhone with its touch UI. And most recently, I was at their campus auditorium, Building 4 of Infinite Loop, 5th row center, when Tim Cook and his team introduced the iPhone 4S and the new Siri Voice and Speech interface, making this their third major contribution to the advancements of computer input. (I make a habit of remembering exactly where I am when I watch history being made.)

Now here is another interesting point. Although Apple has had this touch UI in place and integrated in to iOS since 2007 and the Mac OS X since last year, only now is the Windows world starting to get serious about integrating touch into their phone and computer operating systems. Although Apple will continue to advance their various touch UI’s, they can rightfully say-been, there, done, that.

It is time to take it up a notch and for them their next user input mountain to scale will be the use of voice and speech as part of their future man-machine interface. It may start with iOS but like touch, I expect this UI to be in the Mac in short time as well.

Yes folks, for those of us at the iPhone 4S launch we witnessed history being made. Unfortunately, for a lot of people in at that event, they missed it.

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The Wall Street Journal: “More fizzle than pop.”

The Los Angeles Times: “An evolution, not a revolution.”

The Washington Post: “It wasn’t exactly blowing my mind.”

FoxNews.com: “Lunch-bag letdown.”

Business Insider: “A huge disappointment, or just a regular sized disappointment?”

Analyst Roger Kay: “Underwhelming.”


People, please. There’s nothing wrong with evolution. Without evolution, we would still be apes. (Insert your own snide comment here.) Apple obviously thinks the new iPhone 4S is evolutionary. Otherwise Apple would have given it a new name, like, say, Shebang, or Razzmatazz, or maybe even Five.


But Apple’s new iPhone 4S is the same old iPhone 4 in the same way that a new Tesla Roadster is the same old Lotus Elise. Physically, they’re both sleek and sexy. Under the hood, though, the new model is revolutionary.

Not because of the dual-core processor. Other smartphones already have dual-core chips. Dual-band world phone? Faster upload and download speeds? Fancy camera and high-def video? Others have been there, done that.

No, the iPhone 4S is revolutionary because of Apple’s software, specifically iOS 5, iCloud, and Siri.

Disclaimer: I have not reviewed the iPhone 4S and have no idea if it works as advertised beyond the boundaries of Building 4 on Apple’s Cupertino campus. Apple stresses that the Siri personal assistant software is still in beta mode, even now, a week before the iPhone 4S goes on sale. But if the software does work in the real world, it’s a change as profound as replacing gasoline with electricity.

What is the future of the personal computer interface? Voice and gestures, not keyboards and mice.

Apple patented the capacitive multi-touch interface it introduced with the original iPhone. It included a gyroscope in the iPhone 4, transforming gameplay but also opening the way for new gesture controls. And now, with Siri (and backed by the new A5 and digital signal processors), Apple has added natural language voice control to the computer in your pocket.

Hello, Siri?

Remember the scene in one of the Star Trek movies where a bemused Scotty tries to control a 20th century computer by talking into a mouse? Seriously, does anyone doubt that our grandchildren will operate computers by voice?

Yes, Android phones introduced voice commands a while back. But from the day when Steve Jobs first walked through Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Apple’s true genius has been to seize nascent technologies and make them so simple and elegant that they catch fire. Did Apple invent the MP3 player? No. Did Apple invent the mobile phone? No. Did it invent the portable game system? Negative. Did it invent the tablet computer? Nope. The music store? Uh-uh.

So, what are the best-selling MP3 players and game players and mobile phones and tablets and music stores in the world today? (SPOILER ALERT: iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, iTunes Store.)

Did Apple invent the television? Wait, that’s likely to be the subject of a future column.

In my view, we’ve just seen a revolutionary shift from mobile phones to mobile personal assistants.

What’s on my calendar today? What’s the weather? What’s traffic like? How many calories in this bagel? Remind me to stop to buy coffee on the way home. Read me my mail. Send a message to Ben and Tim telling them I’ll be late to the office. Play this morning’s National Public Radio podcast. What’s the stock market doing now? Call my wife. Let me know when Steve gets to the office. Schedule a lunch with Dave and Kelley for tomorrow. When is Laura’s birthday?

The Siri software “understands” conversational language. It “understands” context. I am unaware of any other voice command system on any other smartphone that reaches this level of competence.

Add this to the intelligent ecosystem of iOS 5 and iCloud – comprising hundreds of new features, all of which make their debuts with the iPhone 4S – and it’s difficult to understand the griping and grousing that followed Apple’s announcement yesterday.

Was it also disappointing that Apple dropped the price of the original 8GB iPhone 4 to $99 (with the usual two-year mobile carrier contract)? Or that it dropped the price of the iPhone 3GS to free? Or that it priced the iPhone 4S at $199 and up? Those were evolutionary changes, too, but if I am Nokia, and my cheapest dumb phone is now the same price as Apple cheapest smartphone, my business plan just got sent back to the drawing board. Ditto Google-Motorola, now that the price bar for state-of-the-art smartphones has been set at $199.

The iPhone 4S is still the thinnest and snazziest smartphone in the world. Okay, so it doesn’t have a four-inch screen, and it’s not shaped like a tear-drop. (Darn, I was hoping I’d have to go buy all-new iPhone accessories.) It does not have built-in near-field radio communications, which prevents me from using it to pay my toll when I board the subway in Seoul, since that’s about the only place I’ve seen that accepts NFC payments. Has anyone seen NFC payment terminals here in the States?

And speaking of NFC, is your mobile phone carrier so trustworthy and transparent that you would trust it handling your daily purchases? Would you trust AT&T as your bank?

Which leaves me to conclude that the biggest cause for pundit, analyst and fanboy disappointment with the new phone is that your friends and co-workers won’t be able to tell that you have the new iPhone 4S just by looking at it, obviating its value as a status symbol. Here’s an idea for a cheap upgrade: Paint a big number “5” on your iPhone case, and they’ll never know the difference.

Why Apple Didn’t Release the iPhone 5

I have been fascinated by the various comments from people, Wall Street analysts included, that were disappointed with the new iPhone 4S. These folks have been having dreams of delusion trying to coax Apple to make each new iPhone conform to their imaginations. When I polled a few of them to see what they expected, they mostly tripped over themselves trying to explain their vision for a new iPhone. Common points were things like it should have been thinner, lighter, with a tapered designed to make it sleek and more unique.

I am pretty sure these folks who want this design don’t live in the world of engineering, manufacturing or even have a working understanding of physics. If you look at the iPhone 4 from an engineering stand point, it is already packed with more chips, batteries, antennas, radios, etc in order to give it the kind of features and functions it has today.

Now imagine that Apple decides that these folks are right. They make it slimmer, lighter and taper it at the bottom. That means they must use a smaller battery thus impacting total battery life. And it means they have to put in sub par or smaller antennas and chips on a smaller die, thus less functionality. And they would possibly have to change the kinds of radios they use to fit them in this new design, also affecting the quality of wireless voice and data signals.

Now, if I am a consumer and have the option of having a slimmer, sleeker iPhone but with less battery life, less power and less functionality, versus having Apple give me a similar physical design but with a CPU that is 50% faster than the one in the iPhone 4, a graphics chip with 7X the power of the one in the last phone, and better antenna and radios so that my voice and data connections are solid, the same size battery that is now tweaked with new software to give them even more talk time, music listening time, etc, which iPhone do you think they will choose?

While this is a key reason for Apple to stay with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fixit” strategy for the iPhone 4S, there is another even more practical reason for staying with this design.

You may have noticed reports over the last two weeks from the channel that Apple was selling all of the iPhone 4’s they can make even though people were fully aware that a new iPhone would be coming out this fall. And we know that Apple can’t make these fast enough to even meet current market demand.

One thing it appears Apple concluded was that, after 16 months of making the iPhone 4, they actually do have the manufacturing of this phone down and in fact, are starting to ramp up even more production lines to meet demand. With this in mind, it made perfect sense to re-design it from the inside out, and still keep all of the manufacturing tooling and processes in place so that they could also make the new iPhone 4S in the kind of volume needed to meet market demands.

The manufacturing experts I know tell me that had Apple actually done a radical new design for this phone, they would have had to retool a lot of the production lines and that this would have been very disruptive, in a negative way. What people don’t realize is that this phone is not that easy to manufacture and Apple, in some cases, has to actually invent the manufacturing tools and machines just to make them in the first place.

Now, this does not mean that they could not have a new or even a radically designed iPhone in the future. But the process to ramp up a completely new manufacturing system takes time and is very difficult to do even on an annual basis. So while they are maximizing the current manufacturing lines for all the iPhone 4’s current physical designs, I am certain they are working behind the scenes to create perhaps a new form factor that can still have this level of functionality and designing the manufacturing procedures and machinery even now for when they will need it in the future. I suspect the next iPhone will be specifically designed to support LTE, a technology that is not ready for primetime because of modest US coverage but by late next year should be available in about 85% of the US.

I am also certain that once consumers really understand that this is a completely new phone even though it is in the same design package, they will flock to it in huge numbers. And Apple will not skip a beat.

Consumers Will Be Delighted by the iPhone 4S

But when people want to project their visions and ideas on Apple and hope that Apple responds to them, they need to look at the practical side of creating something as sophisticated as the iPhone. And in the end they need to realize that Apple actually does know what they are doing when it comes to designing the best and most powerful smart phone they can make and delivering something that customers really want and need in an iPhone, instead of delivering the design pipe dreams of over active imaginations.

Apple’s iPhone and Intel’s Tick-Tock

iPhone 4S web pageIntel has long followed a two-year product cycle it calls tick-tock. In a “tick” year Intel introduces new chips based on a major change in process technology, such as this year’s release of the Sandy Bridge processors. The next year, a “tock” brings refinement within the existing process.

This pattern is driven both by the pace of technology innovation and and the realities of manufacturing. Semiconductor technology evolves fast, but not so fast that major disruptive change is required every year. And a two-year cycle gives Intel the time it needs to perfect fabrication and reap the benefits of the investment in proces change.

It looks like Apple is falling into a similar patter with the iPhone. The 4S announced Oct. 4 was a tock to last year’s iPhone 4 tick. A similar tick-tock pattern marked the release of the iPhone 3G in 2008 and the 3GS in 2009.

There are still major changes in the 4S hardware, most notably the move to the A5 processor, the new camera system, and the use of a dual-mode GSM/CDMA radio. But the basic design is unchanged, allowing the new models to be slipstreamed smoothly into Apple’s (or Foxconn’s) production process.

A change in the industrial design of a handset may not be as disruptive as new semiconductor process technology, but it never happens without difficulty. Apple had problems ramping up production of the iPhone 4 and manufacturing difficulties caused many months delay in the release of the white version. Then there were the notorious problems with the antenna.

Keeping the  basic design the same gives Apple more time to perfect both the design and the manufacturings processes for what will almost certainly be next year’s tick, the iPhone 5, while maintaining smooth, high-volume production of the 4S.


Siri Could Be Reason Enough to Buy the iPhone 4S

Siri iconFolks who found Apple’s iPhone announcement disappointing, and there were plenty of them, weren’t really paying attention. My colleagues Tim Bajarin and Ben Bajarin have outlined the reasons consumers should be excited about the new phone, despite the fact that it looks identical to its predecessor. I’m going to focus on just one of them, the Siri personal assistant.

It’s a huge mistake to regard Siri as a speech recognition component. Speech recognition has become highly developed, but by itself, it doesn’t do very much. Anyone who has used voice control on an Android phone knows it is very good at letting you dictate messages, but not much else.

Siri cracks a much tougher nut. For it to work, the software, which runs partly on the iPhone 4s and partly on Apple’s servers, must understand not just your words but your meaning. If you ask “should I wear a raincoat today?” and Siri responds with a weather forecast, were are looking at very significant advance in machine intelligence.

At this point, a couple of very important caveats are in order. Siri looked spectacular in Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller’s demo. But it was a demo, and the people who create demos carefully limit their choices to commands and functions that they are confident will work. Apple didn’t give attendees at the announcement any hands-on time with the phone. So until users have a chance to try out Siri in the wild, we’ll have to reserve judgment on how good it really is. In a move that seems more Googley than Apple-like, Siri is being released with the iPhone 4 on Oct. 14, but it is officially designated as a beta product, perhaps in and effort to temper expectations.

A second question is just how good it has to be for people to find it useful. If it doesn’t truly make the iPhone easier to use, people will abandon it quickly. But if it works anywhere near as well as it did in the demo, I suspect it will revolutionized the way we interact with devices.

While science fiction computers has been able to carry on intelligent conversations for decades, it has taken real world computers about that long just to learn to recognize words reliably. Speech recognition, which companies such as IBM and AT&T began working on seriously in the 1960s, was based primarily on signal processing and statistical analysis. Natural language understanding seemed hopelessly beyond reach, whether the input was spoken or typed.

Siri was developed by a company of the same name that was acquired by Apple. The original research was funded by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, but Apple may have thrown more engineering and computer science muscle into the project than even the Pentagon can afford these days. But it also had to wait foir a dramatic increase in the processing power of mobile devices—one reason that Siri will not be available with iOS 5 on older phones–and more seamless communications that allow the work to be split between the phone and the server.

As smart as smartphones have become, simple tasks can require annoyingly many steps. Setting up a meeting requires checking a calendar for the proposed time, finding attendees in a contact list, and sending out invitations. If all that can be replaced by pushing a button and saying, “Set up a meeting with Tim Cook for 10 am on Friday,” ease of use will have taken a great leap forward.

One secret to any successful attempt at natural language understanding is restricting the range of commands, known as the domain, that it must make sense of. If you tell Siri, “Write Mr. Smith a script for simvastatin,” your iPhone will probably stare at you blankly (unless, of course, someone uses the Siri application programming interface to create a prescription-writing program.) The range of things you can reasonably ask a smartphone to do is still pretty limited.

The critical question is how much of that repertoire of requests Siri will handle well.  If it is a reasonable fraction, Siri alone will provide ample reason for the iPhone 4’s success.

Consumers Will Be Delighted With the iPhone 4S

I’ve been reading and digesting much of the post Apple event news where they introduced their newest iPhone, the iPhone 4S. I’ve attended every major Apple product launch event since 2003. The last few years the media hype and anticipation around Apple product launches has reached astronomic proportions.

Even today post the event I am not surprised to see “disappointed” and “underwhelmed” in the headlines. It seems as though at every launch event for the past few years the question of “did they do enough” gets asked of me by the media.

The media, luckily for Apple, is not Apple’s target customer. In fact at the launch event Apple showed some very telling slides showing statistics that highlighted how much market share in every major personal electronics category is still left for Apple to gain. These slides tell the story of how Apple thinks about the market as a whole and how all their decisions are geared to grow their market share using product strategies that work.

When I look at the Apple’s current iPhone lineup with the 3GS being free with a new contract or the iPhone 4 being $99, I am convinced that now is as good of time as any for consumers to jump into the Apple ecosystem. However the 4S is now the flagship of the iPhone lineup.

The iPhone 4 is arguably the best designed handset in the cellular industry. In my opinion no handset on the market comes close to the iPhone 4 design. For this reason Apple didn’t need to change the design. In fact earlier in the year I argued that Apple didn’t even need to release a new iPhone this year and they would have still stayed the number one smart phone manufacturer. The iPhone 4 is that good so why fix what isn’t broken.

However they did improve on it and as a matter of fact they improved on it all the ways that make it even more useful than its predecessor. They made if faster both in terms of network speed and core performance. They gave it 7x better graphics which will make it one of the most impressive mobile gaming platforms graphics wise to date. They engineered a better antennae to make the phone download and upload data faster as well as deliver better sound call quality. They made the camera significantly better. They made a bunch of improvements that alone make the device attractive.

Apple is still attracting new iPhone customers at alarming rates. By offering the 3GS for free and the already amazing iPhone 4 for $99 and the iPhone 4S starting at $199 they have a very strong holiday lineup.

Design is important but it is only one part of the equation when consumers make buying decisions. The iPhone’s are still the leading objects of desire in the industry for the mass market.

One thing that seems to get left out, that I think is a very powerful point, is that by not changing the iPhone design new customers or those who upgrade will be able to tap into the already vast iPhone 4 accessory ecosystem. Consumers who buy the iPhone 4 or 4S will immediately find a plethora of accessories. This is a very attractive proposition.

Apple’s current tagline for the iPhone 4S is “Picking up where amazing left off.” That is fitting since they are still leading in the realm of handset design. The media may have expected more and the media may be disappointed however I am confident that actual consumers will be delighted with the iPhone 4S. And really that is all that matters to Apple.

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Five Reasons to Upgrade to the iPhone 4S

While design enthusiasts may have wanted a smaller, lighter and even thinner iPhone, the fact remains that the current iPhone 4 design is about as thin as you can get a smart phone and still pack it with all of the additional new features that will make it the most powerful and best-selling smart phone on the market.

What disappointed people may have in the fact that it is identical in design to the last model, is made up by the high-powered A5 chip that delivers 50% more processing power, and a new dual core graphics chip that is 7X faster than the one in iPhone 4. It has a the new signal processor that makes it possible to deliver Siri’s voice command driven personal assistant, the new 8 megapixel camera with enhanced image sensor, the new video processor that delivers stunning video and the dual antenna system that makes calls and wireless sensitivity better than ever.

From an engineering standpoint, this is the most powerful iPhone Apple has ever made and should help them deliver their first 25-27+ million iPhone quarter this holiday season. With the 3GS being free with contract, this phone could finally attract the laggards who hesitated buying an iPhone because of cost. And the iPhone 4 starting at $99, with its dual cameras and capability to do Facetime, will also be in high demand. However, there are millions of users with 3GS contracts that are out of subscription hell and will gladly make the jump to this new phone in huge numbers. And many iPhone 4 users are close to being out of their contract and many of these folks will also upgrade as soon as they can.

From a consumer standpoint, there are five major reasons why a person should upgrade.

The first is the new 8-megapixel camera sensor at 3264 X 2448 which is 60% more pixels than in iPhone 4 that Apple has in the iPhone 4. This includes a new powerful image sensor and will become the gold standard for digital cameras in smart phones. The images are just stunning. They are 30% sharper.

The second reason is the new video sensor that delivers the best video recording on a smart phone available. The demo they showed of a video taken and actually edited on the iPhone 4 S has to be seen to be believed. It now shoots at 1080P. A user would likely now be more than happy to just use their smart phone to take all of their pictures and videos as the quality of this is beyond what most point and shoot cameras deliver.

The third reason to upgrade is for the SIRI voice assistant. This introduces a whole new way to interact with your iPhone. You can ask it things like, what is today’s weather and get an exact answer instantly via voice. Or you can say, set my alarm for 6:00 AM and it does that automatically for you. Or you can ask, what time is it in Paris, France and it reads out that time to you on demand. It can answer hundreds of questions and enact immediate commands to the phone as part of its design.

What’s more if you are driving and hear a message alert, you can just ask it to read the message to you. Or you can just speak it your message and who to send it to and it does that as well. It can also do dictation in messages, email, and in any app that uses a keyboard. Most importantly SIRI and its voice system only works on an iPhone 4S because of its use of this special signal processor that Apple has on this new iPhone.

And the fourth reason is because of the new antennas. Apple has employed a breakthrough in the way antennas work by making them handle incoming and outgoing calls and data signals differently. This enhances quality of service and it goes a long way to delivering a better voice and data experience. Along with their CPU boost and speed gains from the Antenna that let the iPhone 4S operate at 4G speeds even though it is still a 3G phone, should get it a lot of street cred with users.

And the fifth reason to upgrade is because it is a world phone. That means it can handle CDMA and GSM and can switch between networks when traveling in every country around the world. This is great for anyone that has to travel the world for work or pleasure.

Another hot feature for all IOS users will be the new iMessage system that provides free messaging to any IOS device, which now includes all iPod Touches with the new IOS 5 software.

Of course, iCloud and its amazing synchronization engine will be a godsend to those who want to keep all of their music, video and docs always in sync and up-to-date. In fact, I consider iCloud a most important Apple product and one that will actually help define what the cloud is for consumers and force all competitors to follow suit.

Lastly of course, iOS 5 with 200 new features, will deliver much more power and capabilities to all iPhone and iPod Touch users and make them even more indispensable than before.

iOS 5 and iCloud will both be release on Oct 12th.

The new iPhone 4S will ship on Oct 14th.
The 16 gig is $199. The 32 Gig is $299 and a new 64 Gig is available for $399 with contract.

In the US the iPhone 4S will be available on AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. By the end of the year worldwide it will be available in over 70 countries.