How I use Siri

According to Caitlin McGarry, a writer over at Macworld, Siri is seriously behind:

Google previewed its new voice assistant, the generically named Google Assistant, at its I/O developers conference on Wednesday, and while the assistant hasn’t actually launched yet, its features made Siri’s lack of functionality all the more obvious. Apple’s iOS assistant now lags so far behind not only Google, but Amazon’s Alexa, intelligent iOS apps like Hound, and new technology from Siri’s creators, that it’s unclear if Apple has any interest in catching up.
Siri usually reverts to a web search for questions it doesn’t know the answers to, and now I’ve come to expect that if I want anything more than a timer set or the weather forecast, I’ll have to look it up myself.

That’s silly. Linkbait. And here I am linking to it. I’ve not seen what Google previewed in a currently unavailable application but to jump to the conclusion that Siri is suddenly so far behind that Apple’s plans to keep it up-to-date are now in question. Seriously? Where do I wash this muck off.

And the suggestion that Siri is mostly just good for setting timers or getting the forcast only tells me that either Caitlin does not know how to use Siri or that she’s being intentionally dishonest.

I’ll agree that Siri could be better. Of course it could. That can be said about any of the other virtual assistant services currently available. No doubt Amazon has done a fantastic job with Alexa and has moved the bar. But to paint Siri as this useless, abandoned technology is just ridiculous.

As someone who actually uses Siri on a regular basis let me share just a small sampling of my requests. Yes, timers and alarms and the weather. And really, those are quite useful. But as an avid amateur astronomer I also routinely seek out quick facts. When I’m at the telescope I’m using my favorite astronomy app, Sky Safari, which has much of what I need. But there are times when I’m out for a walk and thinking about some aspect of astronomy. I have on occasion put together Keynote presentations for the local library and might be mulling over a few topics or possible content. For example: What is the largest moon of Jupiter? Siri comes back with an answer via Wolfram Alpha (Ganymede). Another: What is the distance to Pluto? Yup, again via Wolfram Alpha (32.41 astronomical units in case your curious). It gets better and better. Siri, when was the Mars Curiosity Rover launched into space? Yup, another answer from Wolfram Alpha:

If I need the time that a planet is going to rise above the horizon because I’ve got friends coming over to spend some time at the telescope? Yup. I can get the time via Wolfram Alpha right in Siri’s search results. Now, to be sure, some questions do bring up web searches, usually with Wikipedia right at the top which is almost always what I want.

But I’m interested in more than astronomy. I have a keen interest in local flora and fauna. That flower over there that I think might be a gray headed coneflower? Or that bird that might be an indigo bunting? I can ask Siri for images and I have them presented right in the results.

Podcasts or music while I’m out for a walk? I can ask for a specific episode of a specific podcast or the most recent and it opens up nicely. I can have specific music played or a shuffle of everything.

What about local errands or day trips? If I’m interested in directions or the open hours of nearby businesses that usually works out. I’m in a small town in rural Missouri and with Yelp as the basis for these searches it can be hit and miss. If I ask “where is the nearest Trader Joes and is it open today?” I get the results with a map and Siri let’s me know the hours for today. I can tap the map for full directions. I’m not likely to drive that far but it’s possible I might drive into a closer town for Panera Bread. Again, I’m presented with the hours and a map which also indicates that they accept Apple Pay. If I ask about movies for that town I get a list of movies with nice movie art as well as times. If I click one I get more details, directions and an option to play the trailer. Maybe I decide to stay in and rent something on iTunes. A request brings up the information, artwork and option to rent or purchase. Maybe get some pizza? The phone number, map and hours all pop up.

I can do this all day long. Sports? I’m not into sports but I’ve played with it a bit just to see what Siri can produce. Excellent results. I grew up following baseball and that’s something I still follow a bit. If I’m curious about my favorite Cardinals player, Yadier Molina I can ask how he’s doing this year and I get a nice report:

Recipes? Easy enough to find via a Siri web search. Of course, that goes for anything at all and I realize that while handy, initiating a web search is likely pretty low on the list of any voice assistant’s skills. I’m not going to suggest that Siri is perfect. If I ask her to make me lunch I get a simple no. If I ask her to water my garden, no again. But you see, those are obviously absurd requests of a virtual assistant. Actually, now that I think about it there might come a time when Siri could water my garden if and when HomeKit and the necessary components are made available but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

The takeaway here is that there is plenty that Siri can do and I suspect that Caitlin knows it. As a writer for Macworld I certainly hope she does. Anyone can activate Siri and ask “What can you do for me” and get a very helpful list that goes far beyond my examples. Sure, we all hope for more and no doubt more is coming. But for now I’ll happily go on using Siri in the ways that I know I can. I’ll even continue learning new ways to use “her” as I try new requests some of which will fail but many of which will helpfully provide information or complete a task I need help with. For that I’ll be grateful to Apple and it’s engineers.

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