The Talking iPhone

With Siri, Apple has introduced speech recognition for the smartphone. (Image: Apple)

Four million sold in one month – not a bad start for the new iPhone 4S. Admittedly, the latest version’s external features are nearly indistinguishable from those of its predecessor: a glass casing and a 3.5-inch Retina display offering 960 x 640 resolution. Under the hood, however, the iPhone 4S is sporting a number of new features, including a dual-core A5 processor capable of starting programs and loading graphics even faster. And that’s good news for more than just the gamers among us: The souped-up A5 also promises benefits in dealing with animations and complex image content.

In addition, the iPhone 4S comes with an integrated eight-pixel camera that can also shoot HD (1080p) video. The device’s exposure sensor has also been optimized to help produce quality images even in poor lighting conditions, and its face detection function should result in better portrait photos.

Siri recognizes speech

These are certainly welcome updates, but the groundbreaking innovation in the iPhone 4S goes by the name Siri. This speech recognition program interfaces with Web services to enable you to select and utilize virtually any of the device’s functions while driving to your next customer appointment, for example – using just your voice.

Speech recognition and control is nothing new. For years, many sat-nav manufacturers have been fine-tuning their devices to respond to voice commands. It may sound simple, but the technical processes involved are actually highly complex. A device truly capable of understanding everything and even recognizing dialects has yet to be invented. In Siri – for which Apple acquired the software’s inventor, SRI International – the company has brought speech recognition to a smartphone for the first time.

The iPhone functions Siri supports include phone calls, FaceTime, music, e-mail, news, reminders, notes, contacts, weather information, stock reports, online searches, a friend locator, and the device’s clock and calendar. Upon receiving the command “Call Peter Miller,” the software searches through your contacts and dials the appropriate number. Writing e-mails is also a breeze for Siri: In response to “Write an e-mail to Peter Miller,” she asks what the subject and content should be. After you dictate the message, Siri confirms receipt by returning, “Here’s your e-mail to Peter Miller.” Simply stating “send” is then enough to dispatch the message.

In this process, Siri draws on the e-mail addresses saved in your contacts. This is also where a major disadvantage rears its head: If you have Siri set to the German language, for example, she won’t recognize any English names from your address book.

Your virtual personal assistant is, however, able to group contacts. In other words, if you tell Siri the name of your boss, she will memorize it and call the right number the next time you simply say, “Call my boss.”

Warning: security risk!

For all her novelty, Siri does have a serious security flaw – one that could have severe consequences in business settings. The software works even when your screen is locked, meaning that anyone who gets his or her hands on your iPhone could make calls, send text messages, and write e-mails.

The beginning of the end for the keyboard?

Speech recognition is useful in situations other than just when you’re in your car. Tedious typing is passé. Among those already foretelling the end of the conventional keyboard is Sina Moatamet, who recently wrote on the SDN blog about the effects programs like Siri may have. For instance, voice-activated searches could significantly influence Google by hindering its business in advertising.

We will, of course, have to wait and see what smart speech recognition has in store; Siri is still in her infancy, after all. So far, the software’s integration of Web services only works in the United States, where Siri connects to the semantic search engine Wolfram Alpha. The program also supports the review portal Yelp and Yahoo!Weather in the U.S., which enables it to answer queries like, “Will I need an umbrella tomorrow?”

Finally, Siri is capable of learning. She memorizes phrases and recognizes how you talk to her, which means you could very well receive a response along the lines of, “You’ve already asked me that.” Siri also has a healthy sense of humor and is definitely not limited to a standard set of answers. While she currently only speaks English, French, and German, further languages are soon to follow.