Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Government // Mobile & Wireless
04:36 PM
Connect Directly

Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast

If Apple doesn't improve its Siri iPhone 4S personal assistant, a breakup is coming. Performance issues, privacy worries may outweigh the magic.

Alas, Siri, to quote the late, great Frank Zappa: "Our affair was quite heated, I thought you were what I needed, but the time has come, my darlin', to set things right." Poor performance and architecture, iffy privacy, and stiffer competition may soon leave the iPhone 4S intelligent personal assistant jilted.

Performance has been a huge problem since the iPhone 4S rollout in October 2011. Users like me were not only forgiving of Siri at first, but we were excited, because when it worked, it was magical. It was easy to understand that Apple's service was overwhelmed by the 4 million new users in the first few days of the iPhone 4S release. I wrote at the time that "Siri would change everything", even for enterprise applications, while acknowledging that "the technology is still maturing."

Now it's May 2012, and, if anything, Siri's gotten worse. I tell her to "shuffle my top rated," and Siri displays what I said accurately, then tells me: "Let's hear 'Typewriter.'" Um, no.

My 80-year-old father, who tolerated Siri's misdials early on, is ready to move back to his reliable Parrot hands-free dialing system. And even though I live in North Carolina, only hours away from Apple's vaunted Maiden, N.C., data center, I frequently get: "Sorry, I can't help you now," even when other apps on my phone are working just fine.

According to Siri satisfaction data collected by, 55% of users are happy with the service. So 45% are mildly or majorly disgruntled? That's not a love affair that will last.

IBM has also expressed its dissatisfaction with Siri--by banning it from its corporate network for security and privacy reasons. Who can blame it? Users have already ceded their personal privacy by doing location-based searches and making location-based queries on their smartphones. Why should IBM let them add yet another vector of information leakage?

Apple could easily have quieted fears by explaining some of the methodologies used by Siri, or by letting customers manage their preferences. But it hasn't. The American Civil Liberties Union has gotten into the act, explaining to iPhone 4S customers how to simply turn off Siri.

I'm baffled that Apple doesn't seem to care about this pushback. Apple has provided the best customer service in my lifetime. I had a problem with my iPhone 4S recently, made a call to AppleCare, and spent less than 10 minutes on the phone with someone who was helpful, and had a new phone the next day. The company obviously cares about the customer experience. Memo to Apple: The Siri customer experience ain't working!

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

Now, I have no sympathy for the folks who have sued Apple because of their poor Siri experience. As Apple points out, those folks could have simply returned the iPhone 4S.

But that's beside the point. Hey, Apple: You have in your hands a transformative technology, and if you don't get it right, your competitors will.

It will take a bit of re-architecting for Apple to get Siri right. Siri technology provider Nuance says it will be offering Siri-like technology in cars in the near future. If you read between the lines of what Nuance executives are saying, that the company "doesn't expect system latency problems that you may experience when trying to use Siri," it's clear they think Apple has made some poor architecture choices. Cloud computing is great for many things, but what about caching? What about offline operation?

And in the age of cloud computing, why on earth would you use two data centers as points of failure instead of having a distributed data center or edge data architecture? Geez, Apple, you're not Research In Motion. At least, we hope not.

It's possible that Apple thinks that integrated natural language processing isn't a core business. But I'm betting that it's going to be someone's very profitable business, or at least a key weapon in the battle for smartphone dominance. Guess what, Apple? Competition's heating up. If you don't make your customers happy, someone else will.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

At this year's InformationWeek 500 Conference C-level execs will gather to discuss how they're rewriting the old IT rulebook and accelerating business execution. At the St. Regis Monarch Beach, Dana Point, Calif., Sept. 9-11.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
5/30/2012 | 2:03:52 PM
re: Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast
I don't think customers will leave Apple even if there is a better product out there. Apple is, first and foremost, a designer label. The big draw for the apple products is the apple logo that faces out to the whole world whenever you are using one of their products.

It is much like the latest vintage of designer sneakers that people wait in line for overnight to get on the first day of sale. It's not that the product is that good, it the label! That label on apple products is the thing that says I am way better than the rest of you peons out there. It's like the issue of GQ magazine on the stack of your college textbooks in the cafeteria, or the beamer in the parking lot that says "I have arrived".

I remember when someone excitedely told me about the new Apple with SIRI. They took the phone and said - "Siri" Tell me the weather in Melbourne Florida - and it did. I took out my Android, tapped google and the microphone and said "weather in Melbourne Florida". It displayed the weather forecast.

I simply said, "does the same thing, except my phone does not talk back. And in my world, I don't want my phone talking back to me. I get enough of that from the people around me.

Thjey still were overly excited about the i Phone and proudly held it up showing off the Apple logo. YOu see, the logo is the desired effect they are seeking and nobldy can legally copy the Apple Logo and put it on their phone.

I must admit, though, I have often thought about getting a tiny stick on banana to put on the back of my phone to show off to the world. - or maybe an orange so I can use the tag line, you just can't compare apples to oranges.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/26/2012 | 2:05:12 PM
re: Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast
I just wanted to write a quick note to tell you how much I enjoyed your
article. I think you hit the nail on the head. I agree with your points, and your writing
style is highly entertaining as well. Good job.

Of course, I also think there was one minor misunderstanding in your
article. You said that:
"It's possible that Apple thinks that integrated natural language processing
isn't a core business. But I'm betting that it's going to be someone's very
profitable business, or at least a key weapon in the battle for smartphone

Well, in 1990 I got my doctorate in Educational Technology and my
dissertation was on artificial intelligence, knowledge engineering, expert
systems and natural language processing. For the past twenty years I've
been keeping up with that literature - almost as a hobby and habit - so I am
still up to date on the progress the industry has made.

Here's the dirty little secret that few will admit - the amount of progress
has been dismal. We are no closer to cracking the "natural language
processing" barrier now than we were in 1990. My professors at Lehigh
University in the now-defunct artificial intelligence lab explained (back
then) why we wouldn't ever be able to move forward, but because of the
complexity of the reason, many people don't understand. I've tried (in my
own book on Entrepreneur's Guide to Managing Information) to explain why,
but it is still difficult for people to grasp the concept. Basically, what seems to humans easy as pie is, to computers, absolutely impossible. For example, have you ever played
"Which of these things is not like the others?" - the famous Sesame Street game for toddlers?

A human toddler is great at it. A computer cannot do it. At all. Not even a little bit. Because a computer has no context. None. At all. Ever. A computer must still be explicitly told every single thing - it cannot generalize information from previous information.

The bottom line is that SIRI, and any (all) other natural language
processing programs are destined to fail. They always work "for a while",
for "simple" things, but eventually, they fail the Turing test. Eventually,
the holes in their thinking process (or lack of thinking process as the case
may be) appear. In the end, they will not be able to do what we need them
to do - no matter how much we think they should be able to, no matter how
much we wish they could. We are still many many years away from a computer
(no matter how powerful) that can understand natural language, or "think" in
a way that makes sense to human beings.

So if you think Siri will get better in a few years, I hate to disappoint you. It's not the connection, or the bandwidth, or the power or memory of the computer that's the problem. It's the fact that we don't - yet - have natural language processing that works often enough to get beyond the "beta" stage.

Just my opinion
CJ Rhoads
User Rank: Apprentice
5/25/2012 | 8:43:43 PM
re: Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast
Siri is said to be "in beta". That's not a free pass, though. Now that it's out there, it's imitable and others are already imitating for sure. Apple's next phone must have a much better product and much better performance for that product. Although it's still true that "when it works it's magical", the percentage of magical experiences is not high enough.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/25/2012 | 5:39:41 PM
re: Memo to Apple: Siri's Charms Fading Fast
Are you calling John Malkovich, Samuel L Jackson and Zooey liars? Don't let Siri hear you.

So why is Apple pushing a service that doesn't quite work and spending millions and millions to spread the word (or spread the pain and tarnish its image)?

Siri is different and provides an emotional response and emotional interaction with an inanimate object - and Apple wants to own voice - thus the data center and the continuous learning that Siri is building.

Siri is Watson for regular folk ( Ah the new tech adoption birthing process) and Siri will learn and get better and higher speed internet, phones and clearer signals will accelerate what Siri and Siri's voice in everything (is Siri the voice of the network of things....Hmmm) can actually perform and the value returned for the current inconvenience...birthing process.

Apple has calculated the number of early adopters and bad experiences to the number of new iPhones and the eventual end game - own voice, connect voice to everything - and techies will figure out some of the other implications beyond the ACLU.

The Siri model is the info ethics double edge sword, will Siri's knowledge of your questions, location, interconnectedness and disconnectedness be used for good or for evil? Will Siri be hacked and what would that mean anyway?

IBM's sour grapes are serious but also humorous since Watson, hooked into big data flows and web scraping, info sniffing, cognitive capture and development, sits and listens.

Did you ask Watson or Siri for a comment on your article?

Watson implies "no comment"

Siri just seems politely confused and well... ignorant .. for now.

mrhoffman customer worthy

2021 Outlook: Tackling Cloud Transformation Choices
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  1/4/2021
Enterprise IT Leaders Face Two Paths to AI
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  12/23/2020
10 IT Trends to Watch for in 2021
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  12/22/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you.
Flash Poll