The revolution in voice-controlled computing is advancing slowly and quietly, with Apple's Siri personal assistant leading the way. Apple didn't invent the idea or even the technology Siri is based on. It purchased Siri through an acquisition, polished the user experience and baked it into the iPhone 4S. The launch of that device last October kicked off a new era in computing: one in which people command data, content and services using their voices.
Siri rolled out with deliberately scaled-back features and compatibility. Now we're beginning to see how Apple plans to expand it. Last week, the company announced Siri support for more languages and availability on the iPad, representing an expansion in terms of both geography and cross-device compatibility. These new features are incremental, but they represent important steps toward an era of voice-activated computing that's just around the corner.
Last week's announcements suggest that Apple wants to establish a meaningful presence in automobilies, and Siri is at the middle of it all. By fall 2012, Siri will land not only in tablets (and presumably a second smartphone, the iPhone 5), but also in cars from Audi, BMW, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover and Toyota.
The Power of Apple
Apple isn't the only tech giant dabbling in voice control. Microsoft already has built it into the XBox 360 via the Kinect, and there's reason to believe it will be integrated with the company's other platforms. Google has its own impressive voice search technology. But Apple's success at getting voice control into the market for mobile devices sets it apart.
Each quarter, the company sells an astonishing number of iOS devices, which now make up more than 75% of total revenue. This trend shows no sign of slowing down, and with each update to its mobile hardware and software, Siri will grow, if only incrementally. The technology will find its way into Apple's desktop operating system, which continues to evolve into something more and more akin to iOS. Meanwhile, rumors of an Apple-manufactured HDTV persist, and Siri is likely to show up there, too.
The Future of Siri
Apple's strategy implies that voice control will become completely normal before long. If Apple succeeds in weaving Siri thoroughly enough into daily life to influence consumer demand for this type of functionality, its competitors will have little choice but to respond. Their voice-control technologies will evolve alongside Apple's, creating a virtuous cycle of competition and upgrades.
Perhaps the most telling - and exciting - clues about Siri's future lie not in what Apple has unveiled, but in how hackers are using it. As with iOS itself, some of the most innovative things happening with Siri are coming from renegade developers who have found ways around Apple's restrictions. This includes XBox-style voice control of media and using voice commands to start a car or adjust a thermostat. If the love/hate relationship between Apple and iOS jailbreakers is any indication, it's a good bet the company will learn many useful things from these adventurous developers - and the rest of us will reap the reward.