Why Siri is important for Android

I wanted to share some thoughts that I've have had for a long time now and see what all you Vergens think.

I was in San Francisco last week for TechCrunch Disrupt and was about to pay for parking when I saw this sticker:

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The sticker read "PayByPhone", a service that allows me to pay for my parking with a mobile app and/or by making a phone call. On the surface this seems convenient, but practically it wasn't. I was in a rush and didn't want to download an app and then go through the trouble of registering my credit card with it, or worse do the same over a phone call. So I paid by cash.

All the technology to make this payment exists and is present for me to use but it's not usable in a convenient way.

This applies not only to parking meters but to all sorts of different things. I've started to notice malls, restaurants, airpots, and pretty much everywhere I look are starting to have their own apps. Are customized apps the best way to find things? I don't believe they are.

Too many apps

As Google has learned, people don't like typing out search results on their phones. They'll do it, but 2 or 3 magnitudes less than they would on a desktop. Apps have filled that void. It's great to have a single purpose app designed to do a set of features really well.

But what about those situations where you want something really specific for one time use? Like paying a parking meter? Or getting directions within a mall? Or seeing more content at a museum?

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Many won't bother to install the millions of apps out there unless they're really popular and when they do install these types of apps they forget them quickly and never open them afterwards. Homescreens are getting more and more crowded everyday and apps are becoming harder and harder to manage.

Natural language solves complexity

This is where Siri comes in. Before being bought by Apple, Siri's vision was to end app pollution. To use natural language to get people directly to their answers with their first request. No need for installing an extra app, Siri would simply fetch the results and present it to you in an app like fashion.

The genius behind Siri is not a talking computer that gives snarky responses, it's their AI powering their natural language engine. By understanding the difference between "what is a hamburger" and "I wanna eat the best hamburgers around" and "put Ellis Hamburger on the line" and pairing each request to its respective action, Siri can give you exactly what you want in one step. That's the power of a Natural Language engine, it solves the complexity of a user's intent.

That's why I think Natural Language engine will power the future. Users won't have to install new apps or try to remember which app to use, the engine will understand their request and offer a customized UI to get it done.

Importance to Android

But if Natural Language is to power the future, how will it do so on such a closed platform? That's where Siri's importance to Android comes in.

Siri has brought Natural Language engines into the spotlight and have people talking about it. People see the potential of Natural Language and this potential couldn't bigger anywhere else than Android.

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Android's potential to win the coming Natural Language battle is its openness. How can we have Natural Language powering parking meters or elevators or children's toys if we can't get a relevant OS on them? Apple would never dive into those markets but any manufacture can put Android on them. Android could become the playground for new Natural Language apps. Siri is headed in the other direction.

After being acquired by Apple, Siri purpose has now become to make a better smartphone and/or tablet experience. Not to change the way we search and find things.

There are many examples of this from a business point of view: Apple won't dive into a vertical that isn't related to one of their core businesses. If they do ever offer an SDK for Siri, it'll still be scoped in a way to help their overall business just like the App Store is.

More importantly though, there are examples of Siri's limitations from a design point of view. One easy example of this is Apple's decision to primarily support voice input. Natural language is about processing speech (whether its voice or text typed in from the keyboard) into an appropriate command. Apple hasn't allowed Siri to be accessed through typing in an easy way (you can edit what you said from the keyboard but you always have to say something first).

Another easy example is how most search results with Siri end abruptly. Try asking for a restaurant nearby and copying the name of that restaurant to a friend - you can't. You can memorize the name but when you exit Siri to tell a friend about it, there's no way to come back to the results. You have to speak with Siri again. Apple has designed Siri to be an in-and-out experience, not a full fledged search experience. By design it's too limited.

These business and design limitations don't exist on Android. One can build software with the interface they want and, for the most part, put it on whatever hardware they want.

That's exactly what my team and I are doing ourselves. (Shameless plug: We just launched our app, Maluuba, you can try it for free on the Google Play store.) We feel that the Battle of Natural Language Engines is just beginning and we couldn't be more excited to be at the forefront.

Future of technology is 'how'

The power of natural language is that it can be the interface for all things.

The future of technology is "how" things are done, not what things are done. Hardware is becoming cheap, complex software is becoming open source, and servers are all becoming managed by third parties like AWS or Rackspace. The future is about the overall user experience, not the hardware or software that powers it. Instagram has proved that, Path has proved that, and many others will continue to do so.

That's why Natural Language is so powerful. Its power is that it's used everyday by you and me. We use it to talk to friends, colleagues, and just about everyone. It's nothing new one has to learn, it's just like talking to a friend when you say "Wake me up at 7" or "I'm hungry for some tacos." It's an interface for all things because we already use it as such to talk to others everyday.

Innovations in software/hardware like NFC, GPS, and batteries will help that experience but the user's intent will always have to be activated in some explicit way. I feel strongly that Natural Language is that way.

Thoughts?

I'd love to hear what people think. I had a great chat with Robert Scoble about this and he seems to agree. What do you guys think? Do you see the power of Natural Language that I do? Do you see any limitations? Is Android the platform to do so?