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Siri is the Killer App

January 28, 2012

Last year at this time, I wrote the following post entitled 4 Ways to Avoid Chasing the Algorithm on this blog:

Years down the road, Google might not even be the search leader. But search will be the preferred way to find information for a large and growing majority of users. Sooner than you might think, users will have a Watson in their pockets: A computer that has the best available answer for every question. As search engines approach the Watson ideal, and more users access the web through mobile devices, we think users will ever more prefer to search for information rather than browse or navigate.

Little did I know just how soon that would happen. Apple Acquired Siri, a program that would do just what I predicted in this quote, three months later, and incorporated it (her?) into the iPhone 4S (the S is for Siri) in November of 2011. I never dreamed that a product would come out within the same year of that prediction, which is a pretty good facsimile of what I predicted.

I was actually doubtful that Siri did what I had predicted until recently, when Apple released its Q4 results, including this quote:

The Company sold 17.07 million iPhones in the quarter, representing 21 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter.

Apple stock took a hit when it released the iPhone 4S rather than something more ambitious. Little did investors know just how ambitious putting a Watson in users’ pockets would be. And little did investors know that having a Watson in your pocket is a killer app. Now they do. In less than two thirds of a quarter, Apple sold more iPhones than it had in the full quarter the year before. It will be interesting to see how many more people buy iPhones in Q1 2012 than Q1 2011. I’m predicting a huge increase.

Futurists have long predicted a voice-activated computer, fueled in part by Star Trek. What gives Siri so much appeal is that voice is the preferred interface into a phone. Typing has always been challenging on smart phones. Also, screen real estate severely limits navigation and point-and-click UI. So it makes sense that the technology would appear first on the phone. I expect it to migrate to iPads and other tablet devices before taking hold in PCs as well. The appeal goes well beyond Internet search: The ability to find files, run programs, and execute common commands with your voice is a big time saver.

Of course, Google will not take this news lying down. It has been widely rumored that it will incorporate a similar feature into Android. Not only does it need a voice app to compete with Apple for its smart phone business, but Google needs voice-activated search. Most of the growth in search is in mobile search. Reading between the lines, this is at least a contributing factor in its aggressive strategy with Panda and semantic search, Google + and Search Plus Your World. They don’t want a Siri clone, they want something that beats Siri, by delivering better, more personalized mobile search results through a voice interface, exclusively on Android.

All this is good news for users, and a cautionary tale for SEOs and content strategists. We should be asking ourselves how our content works on mobile devices and in mobile use cases, particularly how it is accessible through a voice interface. We should be asking ourselves how our content sounds, not just how it looks. We should be asking ourselves how queries change when spoken rather than typed. We should be asking ourselves how our content is shareable (i.e. people will want to share it) when Twitter and Google + are the primary ways they do this.

These are huge questions that crack the very foundations of digital media, which, until now, was primarily about parsing text through visual interfaces. I won’t provide the answers in this post. Just know that I will begin exploring these questions in future posts. Stay tuned.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim Penner permalink
    January 29, 2012 1:50 pm

    I try to imagine sitting on a bus or even in a quiet office announcing to everyone around me what I’m looking for just now.

    You’ll notice on Star Trek there’s never a gang of people sitting around at their consoles all talking to the computer at once. When they talk to the computers, they’re either alone or there’s only on person talking and it’s not private, such as when one of them is speaking for everyone nearby. This is because sound waves are not private – to the point of being disruptive to others nearby. That’s why we all use earphones.

    Genuinely effective voice input is liable to be a great tool, it’s on the path to simplifying interfaces for wider audiences, etc., but enabling portable devices to the point of “cracking the foundations of digital media” is a bit overstated.

    • January 30, 2012 5:04 pm

      Thank you for your feedback. I think about most people on the bus wearing headphones with built-in mics and using their voices to control their smart phones. I don’t think that’s far fetched.

      As far as “cracking the foundations of digital,” there is a presumption that you’ve read enough of our work to know our perspective there. We take a media deterministic position (cf. Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong), which states that rituals surrounding a medium change the nature of the message conveyed. For example, as our culture has become ever more literate, our information processing has evolved from oral means to visual means. This is manifest in the way we process information on the web, by scanning textual artifacts before deciding whether to read them.

      If these practices revert back to using more audio artifacts, it changes the very nature of the messages we convey. Scanning will take a less important role in our information processing, replaced by listening to snatches of audio. How we decide what is relevant in an audio stream requires an entirely different set of mental processes than we use when we scan text. Optimizing audio streams for these mental processes will be far different than it currently is for the scanning behavior. This will change the very messages we choose to communicate. That seems like a large enough crack in the foundations of digital to serve as a starting place for our inquiry.

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