Well, well, well; it looks like Apple has been caught altering the data that Siri returns to their users when asked specific questions. Last week it was reported that when users asked Siri “What is the best smartphone” it replied with the answer The Nokia Lumia 900. Now Apple has previously stated that the information from Siri all comes from WolframAlpha “computational knowledge engine” (pronounce that search engine) and they have no power to alter the data that Siri sends.
I love a good conspiracy theory on a Monday morning; they can be entertaining, enlightening and also very funny. The one I am talking about is the miss-quoting of Eric Schmidt during Google’s Anti-Trust senate hearings last week. During this hearing he made the statement “Apple's Siri is a significant development--a voice-activated means of accessing answers through iPhones that demonstrates the innovations in search,” He followed this up with this statement “Google has many strong competitors and we sometimes fail to anticipate the competitive threat posed by new methods of accessing information.”
Now I have not been able to determine what order these things were said or what was said in between these two quotes. However, these two items have been used to bolster the idea that Siri is a “threat” to Google’s search empire. In fact at least one media outlet used that as a direct headline. Now I do think that Google is keeping an eye on Siri as it is now owned wholly by Apple, but I do not think they view it as any type of real “threat”.
The problem comes from that fact (yes it is a fact) that Apple has no search engine framework. Siri takes the voice commands and compares them to internal commands. If it is not something that is part of its internal command structure it then looks it up through Apples authorization servers (which parse Google, Bing, Wolfram Alfa, Yelp etc.) The results that are returned are filtered and controlled by Apple’s servers (just as they are by most other search companies). Now this may sound just like Google or Bing etc., but it is not. The thing is that Apple is using other companies’ search indexing and processing power and then selecting their own results. They also (according to some source) lean heavily toward the Yelp service (for entertainment and restaurants). So while Siri is an interesting tool for Apple (one that they bought from another company) it is not a search engine or search framework. It is nothing more than filtered results from other search engines and services.
The second thing to consider is that this was Eric Schmidt testifying to Congress and trying to show that Google is not in violation of the US Anti-Trust laws. Can you really take these comments as “fact”? At the point you are in front of the Senate Committee you are likely to say anything that will make you look less guilty. His comment also never mentioned Siri as a “threat”. He said, “Apple's Siri is a significant development” which is true and something that no one (other than Andy Rubin at Microsoft) has denied. But Siri is not the only voice command service out there. Just take a quick look through the Android market and you will find quite a few that were in existence before Siri and you will also find that Siri was around as an App long before Apple bought them and then limited the App to just the iPhone 4S through the use of their internal servers.
This one conspiracy theory seems to be a lot more like spin than real fact to me. Siri is an important development, and one that will continue to grow, but there are competitors to Siri already in place and the market is far from Apple controlled. Yes, the search game is changing; but believe me Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others are perfectly safe from Siri.
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There is a report tonight that Siri’s Co-Founder, Dag Kittlaus is leaving Apple. According to the report he is leaving to spend more time with his family and also to possibly found another company. This sounds like a great idea after all of the hard work he put in at Apple getting Siri ready for the iPhone 4S launch; which is the thing that bothers me. If you built a company (or co-built) a company and then you just walk away from it after a major launch? That really makes no sense. Of course there could have been a clause in his contract after Apple bought Siri for an undisclosed but rumored $121 Million that stated he had to leave after the initial launch, but I really doubt that.
Instead I think there is a little more to this. One thing that stands out is the constant claims from people who originally were involved with Siri that there is almost nothing this API can’t do. It also is not a power crazy API; you do not need a ton of memory or CPU power to run this thing. So here is what we are thinking (and this is only speculation, but it seems to fit some of the facts). We know that Apple bought up Siri and at one point had plans to release this for product other than the iPhone 4S. At some time, during the pre-production phase of the iPhone 4S it was decided that there was not enough to get people to buy the phone. Apple was sure there would be Sprint purchases, but without a major feature there was not much to motivate people to pick up the new iPhone. Someone decided to remove the capability to run Siri on anything other than the iPhone 4S. With that decision and no future plans for Siri until sometime in 2013 Kittlaus decides to leave.
Apple’s culture of xenophobia and control was probably too much for Kittlaus to deal with. However, we are fairly certain that Apple made sure they had a clause that prevents Kittlaus from immediately going back into business. The probability of a non-compete or delay compete clause accounts for the vacation time he plans to take (not to mention he probably does want some time off). We have a feeling we will see Mr Kittlaus in the future, possibly within a year of today with a new company making something that will turn out to be what Siri could have been… maybe this time it will end up with Android or Microsoft.
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I am sorry Dave; I can’t let you do that… This line from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Oddesy is what came to mind when I showed off this interesting little trick to a friend of mine. While playing around with Siri on their new iPhone 4S we discovered that even when the phone is locked you can send email, text play music, call someone, use the camera and more than a few other things making just about all security useless on the new phone. This is not the first time that security holes have been found on one of Apple’s devices (like finding that the encryption key is stored in plain text on the phone), but I do think this one is one of the funniest.
With all the furor and excitement over what is not much more than a speech to text engine that can run queries against predefined commands to find out that those commands appear to be able to bypass the lock security. What’s more is that Apple allows this by default. I would think that this would not be something that you would want open on a phone with a passcode; however Apple seems to think they know what is best for their customers. I will say this, at least you can turn this feature off, I just think it should have been off already…
For those of you out there thinking about corporate data and email, I have a feeling that Microsoft will add a new security feature into their corporate phone requirements making it impossible to have this running with the lock requirements. I wonder what that will look like…
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