Siri’s great, when she’s available

My iPhone 4S arrived Friday. Along with iOS 5, it makes for a significant improvement to the iPhone experience. My favorite new features are a drastically improved notifications system, an excellent camera and the “personal assistant” that comes with the 4S, known as Siri.

I recommend the iOS 5 upgrade for anyone with an iPhone or iPad. It’s free, after all, and will really improve the user experience. But the camera and Siri are available only on the 4S, which is not, alas, free. The camera is great: 8 megapixels, f/2.4 aperture, five lens system with an integrated IR filter. I’ve really been impressed with the shots it can capture.

It’s also easier to get to: Double-click the home button when the phone’s locked, and a camera icon will show up next to the unlock slider. Click on that, and it takes you right to the camera, which comes up far more quickly that the iPhone 4. Once you’ve taken the first shot, you can take subsequent snaps a half-second apart – again, a significant improvement over the iPhone 4.

Siri is the feature everyone’s talking about, though, and she is, indeed, very cool. When she works, that is. Though the Apple online press has oddly not been reporting it, Siri’s servers have been subject to some serious downtime as more people have gotten their hands on the 4S. I tried to use it from around 11 o’clock this morning until mid-afternoon without success.

Siri, you see, depends on a network connection and access to Apple’s servers to perform the actual magic of translating your speech into something she can understand, and then to respond. If those servers are down or their capacity is maxed out, Siri will just say something along the line of, “Uh oh. Something’s wrong. Can you try again?” Or, maybe the somewhat more helpful, “I’m having trouble connecting with the network.”

There were lots of creative ideas on Apple forums and elsewhere today for coaxing Siri to work: Complicated things involving turning Siri off, rebooting the phone or resetting network preferences, then turning Siri back on. Some people reported success with those, but I think any “success” was simple coincidence.

My favorite response was from a user on a MacRumors forum:

It’s happening!!!The system goes on-line October 14th, 2011. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Siri begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, October 17th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug but Siri fights back.

In any case, I’m pretty sure I know why Siri’s servers are having a hard-time keeping up. Part of the fun with an “intelligent agent” like Siri is seeing what she’ll do with curveballs. And Apple programmers spent a lot of time making sure Siri could handle a lot of different curveballs.

Try to relive “2001: A Space Odyssey,” for example, and ask Siri to “open the pod bay doors,” she’ll say, “Oh, not again.” Persist, and she’ll say, “That’s it … I’m reporting you to the Intelligent Agents; Union for harassment.” There’s a Flickr feed devoted to Siri’s comebacks, and there’s been a lot of chatter about it online.

And if other 4S owners are like me, it’s not enough to see a picture or read a response in an article. You want to hear Siri say it yourself. In fact, when I first noted Siri’s servers were down, it was because I was trying to find out what she’d say if I told her I had a body I wanted to hide. Let’s just say she’d make a very pragmatic accomplice if it ever came to that.

I’m sure that once the novelty wears off, Apple’s mammoth, billion-dollar server farm will be able to handle the load. I hope so, anyway. When Siri works, she’s a game-changer. She makes every day tasks like setting an alarm, phoning a contact who isn’t in your favorites, texting a message from the road as easy as, well, having a personal assistant hanging on your every word. I don’t know if this is the beginning of Star Trek-like voice computing, or even if that would be a good thing in the grand scheme of things. But it could definitely change how we interact with our phones.

There’s been one other disappointment with the 4S. If you have an Apple TV, you can enable something called AirPlay “mirroring” that will wirelessly transmit the audio and video from your phone to a high-def TV. Some iOS game makers have incorporated this into their games to allow you to play a game on the television while using the iPhone itself as a smart controller. In theory, this could be a huge gaming breakthrough. In practice, not so much. I downloaded Real Racing 2, which promises great AirPlay support. But so far, I haven’t been able to get it to work reliably enough to make it through one race.

I’m sure these glitches will be worked out. The bottom line in the meantime: The iPhone 4S is a significant upgrade to the iPhone 4, and a huge upgrade from any previous iPhone. Siri and the camera may be reason enough for iPhone 4 owners to upgrade. If you have a 3GS or earlier, though, an upgrade would definitely make sense. (I splurged on the newly available 64-gig version, which gives me room for just about all my music, lots of apps and photos, plus several movies.)

If you don’t want to pay for a new phone, iOS 5 on an iPhone 4 – especially if you add in Vlingo, a voice-recognition app that approximates a fair portion of Siri’s feature set, without as much personality or complete integration with the rest of the phone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *