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 http://www.siri.com/registration). 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.