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Apple's Siri: The smart person's guide

Here's the lowdown on Siri, Apple's game-changing popular personal digital assistant. Find out how Siri significantly extends the usefulness of a device running iOS, macOS, watchOS, or tvOS.

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Occasionally, seemingly small innovations pack tremendous impact. Certainly, that's proven true with Apple's Siri personal digital assistant. The voice-activated concierge so significantly reshapes the way people interact with devices that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has stated the feature poses a threat to Google's underlying search business. Regardless of rhetoric, Siri has its fans, with Apple revealing that the digital assistant fulfills more than 1 billion requests per week. And with the WWDC 2017 announcement of a new HomePod high-fidelity speaker, Apple's seeking to extend the technology's reach into its customers' everyday interactions.

Whether you want to shorten the time required to answer a question, schedule a ride, check a flight's status, send a text message, or obtain navigation information without having to type, Siri offers users intelligent assistance that adapts to the individual user's nuances over time. Available in all of Apple's operating systems--iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS--users can customize the digital concierge to possess different voices and change the way its services are activated.

We'll update this resource guide when new information is available about Siri.

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Executive summary

  • What is Siri? Siri is a digital personal assistant that performs searches and completes actions in response to an end user's natural voice commands. Siri was originally introduced as a standalone iOS app by Siri Inc., and Apple acquired the company in April 2010. The feature was integrated within iOS, dating back to version 5, after which the feature was steadily rolled into Apple's other platforms, including watchOS, tvOS, and macOS. The platform supports some 20 languages in dozens of countries.
  • Why does Siri matter? Siri introduces an innovative and revolutionary search and instruction strategy, being adopted by competitors (including Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Microsoft's Cortana), that changes the way users interact with devices and obtain information.
  • Who does Siri affect? Users of any Apple device--whether the equipment is a smartphone, tablet, desktop computer, laptop, Apple TV, iPod touch, or watch--can access Siri capabilities, which help leverage investments the user has made in digital content and material across all Apple devices and services using an Apple ID. Apple application programmers are also impacted by the feature, as Siri presents additional integration opportunities, and potentially challenges, for software developers.
  • How do you use Siri? Siri is integrated within iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Users can customize settings for the feature, which is automatically integrated within contemporary Apple devices.

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SEE: Executive's guide to Apple in the enterprise (free ebook) (TechRepublic)

Image: CNET/Tyler Lizenby

What is Siri?

Siri is a digital personal assistant, integrated within Apple device OSes, that enables Apple device users to get answers to questions, check the weather forecast, confirm flights, book rides, make payments, and display specific files, perform searches, send a message, and much more in response to the user's natural voice commands. The time-saving feature uses natural language and doesn't require learning sophisticated or unfamiliar commands. Also, Siri adapts to a user's nuances, learns from previous operations, and leverages a device's existing capabilities to extend usefulness with a minimum of user instruction or interaction.

Siri is not a utility to be used in hectic, noisy environments, or a tool to be leveraged for performing complex commands, such as editing videos or photos. Instead, the digital concierge excels at performing time-saving commands ("Siri, please text my spouse that I am running five minutes behind"), opening a specific file ("Siri, please open the 2017 budget spreadsheet"), accessing specific photos ("Siri, please open the photo album with the new product shots"), providing you with weather information so you know if you'll need an umbrella ("Siri, is it going to rain at 3:00 pm?"), and similar tasks.

The more time you spend with the digital concierge, the more you'll learn how it can be used to perform tasks.

Certainly, Apple will continue investing in the AI assistant. Apple announced at WWDC 2017 that it is using deep learning to improve Siri's operation. Voice intonation and inflection tweaks help create a more natural sounding voice, while the technology also benefits from on-device learning to enable it to better respond to questions, provide more relevant information, and even recommend suggested articles, text changes, and search strings based on the user's previous behavior.

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Why does Siri matter?

Instead of users having to stop what they're doing, navigate to various menus and applications, access the keyboard, type specific instructions, and browse and occasionally revise results, Siri enables users to deliver simple and natural voice commands to Apple devices. Whether seeking to play a video, obtain navigational information, or perform some other tasks, users can quickly perform all these actions using Siri via minimally disruptive voice commands.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (PDF download (TechRepublic)

Considering users configure Apple devices to join their iCloud and iTunes accounts, the content (spreadsheets, documents, presentations, PDFs, videos, photos, movies, TV shows, music, and other files) available to all their Apple devices becomes accessible to Siri. The result is a much more efficient and productive relationship between an end user, the end user's digital content (files, photos, videos, music, applications, cloud services, etc.), and the user's devices (Apple TV, iPhone, Mac, automobile entertainment system, watchOS, and iPad).

Siri also simplifies the task of leveraging other Apple technologies. For example, an iPhone user on the go can instruct Siri to schedule a 2:00 pm client appointment on Tuesday. When the Apple user returns to the office, powers on his or her Mac, and opens the Apple Calendar, the meeting will already be present on the calendar, assuming the user has configured Apple Calendar properly on all his/her devices. Apple's quickly closed the gap from being able to enter such information on the go to being able to enter and synchronize such data using simple voice commands. The ramifications are impactful and wide-ranging.

At WWDC 2017, Apple announced the release of a new Siri speaker. Called HomePod, the Bluetooth-enabled, self-adjusting high-fidelity device sports six microphones to extend Siri functionality. Apple users will be able to leverage Siri voice interaction technologies (think voice commands), enabling the device to play Apple Music, control smart home accessories, answer general knowledge inquiries, set clocks and timers, obtain news and weather information, and even get traffic reports and translations.

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Who does Siri affect?

Users of Apple devices, including iPhones, iPads, Macs, Apple TVs, and Apple Watches, are affected by Siri innovations.

Customers who purchase automobiles equipped with Apple CarPlay also benefit; Siri functionality integrates with the car's audio system's capabilities and better links a user's iPhone with the vehicle to simplify obtaining directions, making calls, listening to books, sending and receiving messages, and listening to music. And, as announced at WWDC 2017, Siri will begin taking on an even more prominent role in watchOS 4.

Developers are also impacted, as software manufacturers benefit when their applications are integrated with Siri. Apple's SiriKit assists developers with the process. SiriKit consists of two frameworks that developers can leverage to tie their applications and services with Siri.

Competitors to Siri

Several alternatives, from such heavyweights as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, pose compelling competition to Siri:

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How do you use Siri?

Users seeking to leverage Siri's capabilities need to purchase a contemporary Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Apple Watch, or Apple TV. Siri settings can be customized using an iPhone's or iPad's Settings menu, a Mac's System Preferences screen, or the Settings menu on an Apple TV.

The default method of accessing Siri on an iPhone or an iPad is to hold down the Home button. To summon Siri on a macOS Sierra-equipped Mac, you can leverage a keyboard shortcut assigned within System Preferences or by clicking the Siri icon on the menu bar (after configuring your Mac's Siri preferences to enable its appearance). macOS Sierra also places a Siri icon in the Dock for easy access. Using an Apple Watch, you can ask Siri a question by pressing the depressing and holding the Digital Crown or by raising the Watch or tapping the screen and saying "Hey Siri."

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