If Apple doesn't improve its Siri iPhone 4S personal assistant, a breakup is coming. Performance issues, privacy worries may outweigh the magic.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

May 24, 2012

4 Min Read

Alas, Siri, to quote the late, great Frank Zappa: "Our affair was quite heated, I thought you were what I needed, but the time has come, my darlin', to set things right." Poor performance and architecture, iffy privacy, and stiffer competition may soon leave the iPhone 4S intelligent personal assistant jilted.

Performance has been a huge problem since the iPhone 4S rollout in October 2011. Users like me were not only forgiving of Siri at first, but we were excited, because when it worked, it was magical. It was easy to understand that Apple's service was overwhelmed by the 4 million new users in the first few days of the iPhone 4S release. I wrote at the time that "Siri would change everything", even for enterprise applications, while acknowledging that "the technology is still maturing."

Now it's May 2012, and, if anything, Siri's gotten worse. I tell her to "shuffle my top rated," and Siri displays what I said accurately, then tells me: "Let's hear 'Typewriter.'" Um, no.

My 80-year-old father, who tolerated Siri's misdials early on, is ready to move back to his reliable Parrot hands-free dialing system. And even though I live in North Carolina, only hours away from Apple's vaunted Maiden, N.C., data center, I frequently get: "Sorry, I can't help you now," even when other apps on my phone are working just fine.

According to Siri satisfaction data collected by OnlineDegrees.com, 55% of users are happy with the service. So 45% are mildly or majorly disgruntled? That's not a love affair that will last.

IBM has also expressed its dissatisfaction with Siri--by banning it from its corporate network for security and privacy reasons. Who can blame it? Users have already ceded their personal privacy by doing location-based searches and making location-based queries on their smartphones. Why should IBM let them add yet another vector of information leakage?

Apple could easily have quieted fears by explaining some of the methodologies used by Siri, or by letting customers manage their preferences. But it hasn't. The American Civil Liberties Union has gotten into the act, explaining to iPhone 4S customers how to simply turn off Siri.

I'm baffled that Apple doesn't seem to care about this pushback. Apple has provided the best customer service in my lifetime. I had a problem with my iPhone 4S recently, made a call to AppleCare, and spent less than 10 minutes on the phone with someone who was helpful, and had a new phone the next day. The company obviously cares about the customer experience. Memo to Apple: The Siri customer experience ain't working!

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Now, I have no sympathy for the folks who have sued Apple because of their poor Siri experience. As Apple points out, those folks could have simply returned the iPhone 4S.

But that's beside the point. Hey, Apple: You have in your hands a transformative technology, and if you don't get it right, your competitors will.

It will take a bit of re-architecting for Apple to get Siri right. Siri technology provider Nuance says it will be offering Siri-like technology in cars in the near future. If you read between the lines of what Nuance executives are saying, that the company "doesn't expect system latency problems that you may experience when trying to use Siri," it's clear they think Apple has made some poor architecture choices. Cloud computing is great for many things, but what about caching? What about offline operation?

And in the age of cloud computing, why on earth would you use two data centers as points of failure instead of having a distributed data center or edge data architecture? Geez, Apple, you're not Research In Motion. At least, we hope not.

It's possible that Apple thinks that integrated natural language processing isn't a core business. But I'm betting that it's going to be someone's very profitable business, or at least a key weapon in the battle for smartphone dominance. Guess what, Apple? Competition's heating up. If you don't make your customers happy, someone else will.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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