Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Siri and the Big Head Cases

A year and a half ago, I had some business in London. I had recently acquired an iPhone, and I was enjoyed showing it to people because it was not yet available in England. On my day off, I got a map from the hotel and set out to wander the city. What I discovered was that when I needed do some navigation I reflexively pulled out the iPhone to look at the Google maps app, despite the fact that the paper map was in my other pocket, it was faster and more convenient to use the paper map, and for the roaming data charges I was running up on the iPhone, I could easily have bought a whole guidebook. Once I had a "workflow" that had been previously rewarding, I would repeatedly reuse that workflow, even when it was inappropriate.

The most exciting thing at the Semantic Technology Conference this week was, for me, the keynote address by Tom Gruber, Founder and CTO of Siri. He demonstrated the "Virtual Personal Assistant" that they have been working on. It will be released as a free service complete with iPhone app this summer, and I can't wait to try it out. (To get your name on the beta list, go to Gruber articulated a theme that was repeated several times during the conference, that the web world has resulted in a fragmented user experience. Those Apple commercials that pound home the message "There's an app for that" now have taken on a new meaning for me. It seems that while I can go to my iPhone for just about anything I want to do when I'm mobile, the proliferation of apps has made may user experience much more complex- I have to chose the app I want to use for a particular task, and I sometimes need to orchestrate several apps to accomplish a task. Siri's virtual personal assistant is designed to be the one button I use to accomplish a variety of tasks, and I'm guessing that I will be reflexively using Siri even when I shouldn't.

The other interesting perspective I got from Gruber's talk was the concept he awkwardly called "The Big Head Cases". Siri has tried to focus on the few things that users do most often- get directions, find a restaurant, communicate with friends, and handle these things really well using speech recognition, natural language processing, contextual awareness, service orchestration, etc. This is the opposite of the stereotypical internet focus on the "long tail". "What's the opposite of the long tail?" Gruber asked himself. "I guess it's the 'big head'." In other contexts, you might call this the 10/90 rule. Siri will be addressing the "long tail" tasks by opening up an API that will let 3rd parties expose their services through the virtual digital assistant. The library world should sit up and take note- there will need to be a good way for libraries and other information services to offer their location-specific services in this way.


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