Storing Sentience

When Siri was unveiled with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, there were a lot of very intrigued, very happy people. Already, in my usage of Siri with my new iPhone 4S, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the things I’m able to do, and how easy Siri makes so many of the things I’m used to doing. Naturally, there are some shortcomings. Since I use an unlocked 4S with the T-Mobile network, I’m relegated to EDGE when not on wi-fi (how was this speed ever acceptable?), and communication with Siri is woefully slow. I wish I had the scratch to pull off an AT&T subscription, but I just don’t right now.

This got me thinking, however. Since the 4S relies on a persistent, high-speed network to deliver results to the user, what happens when a person has a slow connection, or is in a wireless dead zone? The ability for Siri to function as an interface diminishes dramatically, leaving a person only able to interact with the data that is already on his or her phone. While this normally would not be a problem, anyone looking for Siri functionality in a wireless dead zone is going to be frustrated, period. Naturally, the last thing Apple wants is unhappy customers, so what can Apple do to circumvent this situation?

I found the answer in the iPod Shuffle.

This little device, as many know, is what one might call one of Apple’s lesser-loved projects. At the time of its inception, it filled a necessary void–that of a low-cost music player bearing the iconic Apple logo and “iPod” name. It was my first iPod, and, I’d wager, the first iPod for many others, as well. The problem with the iPod Shuffle, now, is it lacks features. It isn’t relevant anymore. When the shuffle was introduced, MP3 players, including the iPod Classic, were large and relatively bulky, and their battery life left something to be desired. The Shuffle had long battery life, was capable of syncing with iTunes, and offered people an interesting alternative to the blue-hued screens and click wheels of their larger cousins. The storage was all flash, which meant that it wasn’t prone to hard drive failures in the same way the iPod Classic was, and that it could play all day on a single charge.

Since the Shuffle lacked a screen, however, there was no way for a user to really know what was about to play. Apple solved this with their “VoiceOver” feature, which was able to announce the name of the playing track or playlist, or the remaining battery life. In order to do this, however, the user needs to give up some storage space on their device to make room for the VoiceOver data. For some, this is an easy tradeoff, since it adds a sense of depth to the diminutive device. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a moment.

It was recently discovered that the iPhone 4S contains a dedicated sound-processing chip that enables it to better separate your voice from background noise, which increases its ability to recognize what you’re saying before sending that data off to Siri for processing and language recognition. All this data being sent to Siri means that there are a great deal of sound snippets that Apple has at its disposal to refine and improve its voice-recognition and accuracy. The more people use Siri, the better it gets, and the better it gets, the more people use it. Eventually, I believe, Apple will be able to “distill” certain Siri queries down to their core components, picking out speech patterns and pull user voices away from background noises more easily. Furthermore, Apple will be able to condense certain components of Siri down to include that functionality on devices that don’t have a persistent wireless connection, and significantly speed up Siri queries on devices that do. Naturally, looking up restaurants on Yelp or finding out data from Wolfram is going to require a connection to the internet, but things like setting reminders, calendar appointments, taking notes, and playing music can all (theoretically) be done locally, without a persistent data connection. This would allow Apple to install Siri on all of its devices. When the device has a wireless connection, it would be able to upload usage statistics, and download changes to the onboard Siri database while doing its nightly iCloud backup.

Naturally, the user might have to sacrifice some storage space, but it would allow even the iPod shuffle to become a “personal computer”, with the ability to store notes, read emails, and access a user’s information in the cloud when a connection becomes available. Who knows? Apple may even negotiate a wireless deal with service providers that allow all its devices to connect to a Kindle WhisperNet-style “SiriNet” for free, for the purposes of communicating with the Siri servers.

Until we have ubiquitous worldwide wireless coverage, we can talk to the little Siri in our Shuffle.

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The Apple Nexus

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I’ve reading a great deal in the past few months about all of the new Nexus phones that have been coming out recently, reviews by people who have used iPhones and tried to switch but failed, reviews by people who are avid Android users who love them, and most people who are somewhere in between. I’ve heard arguments as to why certain operating systems have more future, certain phones are objectively better, and really just stand somewhere in the middle, looking at all of this with a little bit of a quizzical look on my face. I’m not trying to take sides here, but I believe that Apple’s position in this market is much better because of one main reason: NFC.

While it’s true that Google’s Nexus phones have had NFC built-in for some time, it has been clear that the feature has been little more than a bullet point in a presentation in order to build some buzz and give Android pundits something to hold over Apple’s head. I thought the inclusion of NFC in the first round of Nexus phones to be half-baked, mostly because I looked around at the places I visited every single day and saw literally nothing that used NFC in a way that was available for public interaction. The only usage for NFC that I’ve seen implemented anywhere was in the TouchPad. We all know how that went.

The key here is this.

If users wave a NFC-equipped iPhone at a NFC Mac (they need to be in close proximity to interact), the Mac will load all their applications, settings and data. It will be as though they are sitting at their own machine at home or work. When the user leaves, and the NFC-equipped iPhone is out of range, the host machine returns to its previous state.

This is huge, and with Bluetooth coming back in a big (or perhaps little, as in low-power) way, this may be even more effective.

“The usual idea is that you would use NFC to set up the link between the two devices and then do an automatic hand over to a different protocol for doing the actual transfer of data – eg Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, TransferJet etc – and that’s what I imagine would be happening here,” she said.

The above coming from Analyst Sarah Clark of SJB Research.

This idea still has so much potential. As Steve Jobs said when he unveiled iCloud, Apple is demoting the computer to just another device, one that accesses your data in its servers in North Carolina somewhere. With the computer being just a gateway to your computing state anywhere, any device can also theoretically access this saved state and allow the user to resume their previous session wherever they are.

Let’s also look at another piece to the puzzle: Apple TV. We don’t know what Apple is planning for this theoretical Apple TV later this year, but let’s take a look at the Apple TV in its current incarnation, the tiny little black box that, quite frankly, is a little Wünderdevice.

For starters, you can now do this. I think that’s a pretty big deal. So the Apple TV, in its current state, can run iOS apps. It can access iCloud. It can play music and movies, and also allows a compatible device to mirror its display through a Wi-Fi connection. Let’s talk about that for a moment, as well.

If you haven’t already, check out Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3. It’s basically a Modern Warfare clone, but it has one killer feature: the ability to mirror the game on an Apple TV, which turns the iOS device you’re holding into a controller and puts the game on the big screen. I tried this on my iPad and was amazed with the results. This is truly something that game developers need to be looking at, but it’s also something that regular developers need to be looking at, as well. Think about it–if a device that is mirroring its display output to an Apple TV can display different content on the device than on the TV, a word processing app could essentially turn the tablet into a wireless keyboard, while the main workspace is displayed on the TV. The iPad or iPhone (or both!) could display a suite of controls or “function” keys, or function as pointing devices, or really anything that you can think of. The idea of a “technology appliance” holds even more water here, since these devices can be used synergistically to create an effect that one device on its own is technically capable of, but is better when spread out among several devices. Look at Keynote, for instance. With an iPad and iPhone, a person can run an entire professional presentation with no bulky equipment and a minimum of technical prowess.

In the context of the aforementioned connection to an Apple TV, this capability becomes even more important, since it allows the TV to function like a traditional “desktop”, but without the bulk of wiring, an extra device to draw power, and connections to set up. NFC handles everything, and the bulk of the transfer can then take place over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or some other protocol that is standard in Apple devices.

And this, my friends, is why Apple is positioned so much more powerfully in this market than any Android device manufacturer. While other manufacturers will essentially be playing catch up with all of this anyway, they will also have to contend with consumers who will be presented with each manufacturer’s take on this idea. Where Samsung may offer one type of connectivity, Asus may not, since it doesn’t have a TV of its own, but LG might. The consumer will stand in front of his TV and scratch his head wondering why his Motorola Xoom isn’t connecting to his Samsung TV, while his neighbor with an iPad and Apple TV is able to transition from room to room in his house without missing a beat.

The aftermath of this whole shebang would be the equivalent of a Destruction Derby, with all of these companies vying for the consumer dollar, blowing themselves to bits and waging a war of attrition while Apple’s devices still lead the way due to their simplicity and interoperability. The next thing that will happen is that these other manufacturers will start listing even more specs on their TVs, things like gigs of ram, processor speeds, and core counts. The consumer will look at all this and once again scratch his or her head in confusion. The Apple TV will say something like “Best-in-Class Picture Quality, Siri, and [catchy Apple-fied name for NFC connections]. Say Hello to Apple TV.”

It’ll sell like gangbusters, and we’re all going to want one. Of course we will, it’s going to represent the future of computing. Can we even call it that anymore? No, not really, it doesn’t feel right, and in this one (admittedly long-shot) future, “computing” isn’t a thing. You just pick what you want or need to do, and you use well-designed, simple hardware to do it.