The Perfect Storm – Changing the Way We Interact with Devices (Apple/Siri, Windows Mango)

It ill behoves me to take issue with my colleagues over at SemanticWeb.com or indeed with Tom Gruber, a co-participant with me in the Ontology Summit for many years, and the brains behind Siri – the “Virtual Personal Assistant” software acquired by Apple last year for a rumoured eye-watering price.

What I want to argue is that the expectation to interact with devices in increasingly sophisticated ways is rapidly becoming a generalised meme rather than the unique selling point of any particular device, however smoothly the Apple marketing machine want to pitch it.

I think Tom’s work is extraordinary and I saw his pre-release demo of Siri to a hushed Web3.0 event last year and remember thinking how groundbreaking this would be. So I don’t want to take anything from today’s announcement but rather underline something else – that in fact Tom did very elegantly at the time.

He called it “The Perfect Storm” – he argued that we are approaching a moment when we can leverage four important and inter-related trends:

  • The near-infinite scalability of cloud-computing, providing off-device computing, application and service power and content storage;
  • The ever-increasing bandwidth available to devices (increasingly, mobile devices) connecting to the Internet;
  • The growth of ecosystems of users providing rich crowdsourcing and powerful communities of interest;
  • Increasingly “sensitive” mobile devices – sensitive (and responsive) to touch, sound, movement, light, in ways that allow them to act as proxies to our own senses in realtime

I’ll be covering the first of these in more detail next week when I open the International Cloud Symposium in England. On the second, I’ll restrain myself from too much comment about how we allow ourselves to be milked by mobile operators for our insatiable appetite to be “always on”. Many greater minfs have applied themselves to the third issue and Tom himself elegantly exposes the fourth.

However, taken as a whole, we are already in The Perfect Storm, or at the very least we all feel the leaves starting to rustle around us as the storm picks up.

I was struck by this forcefully only yesterday. My Windows Phone pinged me with the much-hyped and long-awaited news that the “Mango” update was ready to install. It didn’t disappoint. Being just a little bit nerdy, I pulled up my “wish list” and bug-tracking notes from a year ago when the Windows Phone was first released, and started to check off how many of my “must have”s and “nice to have”s are now covered – all so far. Nice. But the real surprises were those of the “oh so simple, why has no-one thought of this before” variety and really underlined Tom’s point in more general terms. A couple of examples:

  • Press the ‘Search’ button and then the new ‘Vision’ icon: simply point the now-activated camera at a barcode (on a book, a DVD, any item on a shop’s or your own shelves) or QR code and the software will recognise and scan the object, check it against information in Bing services and send me a page summary of information or a web site. All this without having to take a photo, press the shutter, import to a scanning app, copy the data to a search query and await the result.
  • A text message arrives while I’m driving – the phone offers to read the message aloud to me and, when done, offers me the options to dictate a reply or call the other party – all without taking a hand off the wheel or my eye off the road – something which I would welcome widespread adoption of here in Los Angeles where stupid in-car behaviour is elevated to a unique art-form (The other day, I watched from the passenger seat in horror as a driver – “only” doing 60mph on the motorway – was casually reading his New York Times on an iPad while talking on his hand-held phone).

It is computing power where and when I want it – it leverages the power of the local (multi-sense) device and couples it with the power of cloud-based services: each playing to their respective strong suits. The experience for the user is natural and intuitive. The mobile phone becomes the telechiric device of the information age.

I wish Tom and the whole Siri crew the best for continued success from their partnership with Apple but it’s already, in less than a year, no longer as unique an idea as it seemed – it’s rapidly becoming an expectation that mobile devices are natural and intuitive. I’ll leave you with the image of a father and his three-year old daughter on a recent long-haul flight, the daughter frustrated that the pages of the eBook she’s reading on her dad’s reader wouldn’t come “unstuck” if she held it upside down and shook it. Made me think how much technology has contributed to such cognitive dissonance and, on the positive side, how much it can also make our virtual worlds resonate with the real world around us.

Update (12 Oct 2011): It seems that Siri will not appear in the latest update of the iPhone.

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