By John Gruber
I’ve noticed over the past year that Siri is getting faster — both at parsing spoken input and returning results. I use iOS’s voice-to-text dictation feature on a near-daily basis, and it’s especially noticeable there. I’ve been using a Moto X running Android 5.0 the past few weeks, so today I did a side-by-side comparison between Siri and Android’s Google Voice Search, asking both the simple question, “What temperature is it outside?” Both phones were on the same Wi-Fi network. Siri was consistently as fast or faster. I made a video that shows them in pretty much a dead heat.
My point here isn’t “Siri is better than Google Voice Search”, or even “Siri is as good as Google Voice Search”. Once you get past the superficial level, they’re different enough that it’s hard to make a blanket one-is-better-than-the-other comparison. I’d even agree that Google Voice Search is better at many complex queries, and, further, that “What’s the temperature?” is a very simple question.
But: it’s a question I ask Siri almost every day, before I get dressed, especially during winter. I want to know whether it’s going to be just plain cold, or really fucking cold. When Siri debuted in 2011, it was often (usually?) relatively slow to parse your spoken input, and slow to return results. Your mileage may vary, but for me that just isn’t true any longer. Siri has also gotten much, much better while on cellular networks. Part of that is surely that LTE networks are maturing, but I suspect part of it is Apple’s doing as well.
Nor is my point about which service presents the information in a more attractive or useful layout. My point here is simply this: Siri is noticeably faster than it used to be. Even just a year ago, I don’t think Siri could have held its own with Google Voice Search pulling information like the current temperature or sports scores, but today, it does. Apple has clearly gotten much better at something everyone agreed was a serious weakness. Two years later, I don’t think “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services” feels true any more.
After I posted that video to Twitter, DF reader Steven Op de beeck made an overlay showing his results in Belgium. Outstanding Siri performance.
Here’s a Storify collection of just about every response to my “Just me, or is Siri getting a lot faster?” tweet.
My 2010 piece for Macworld, “This Is How Apple Rolls”, on the company’s pattern of steady, iterative year-over-year improvements to its products, seems apt.
I think this is a case that shows how important first impressions are. Quite a few of the responses I got on Twitter were along the lines of, “I don’t know, I gave up on Siri years ago.” No product or feature is ever perfect when it debuts. Quite the opposite, brand-new products/features usually debut needing numerous obvious improvements. But, ideally, they should debut on the right side of the “good enough to engender affection” line. The original iPhone had no third-party apps, EDGE networking, and lacked copy-and-paste. But we loved it. Siri, I think it’s clear in hindsight, debuted on the wrong side of that line. It’s harder to change a negative perception than it is to create a positive one from a blank slate.
Lastly, a rather obvious but important observation: Improvements to Siri across the board — reducing latency, improving accuracy, increasing utility — are essential to the success of Apple Watch. And — given the previous note on first impressions — it’s pretty important that Siri integration on Apple Watch work well right from the start. Apple will find itself in a deep hole if voice dictation via Apple Watch gets saddled with an “Egg Freckles”/”Eat up Martha” reputation. ★
I think a lot of us have lost our spirit, and that’s a problem for Apple. Apple may not think so — its financial statements would argue that it’s in great shape — but it’s being buoyed by an excellent run of hardware releases and a certain amount of inertia. Eventually, though, it runs the risk of becoming another Microsoft, with users who do more complaining than praising. When a company’s best users lose their spirit, it loses their leverage.
Every company’s downfall is different. Microsoft didn’t have a major update to 2001’s Windows XP until 2006’s Windows Vista, which was rejected by its customers. The “fix”, Windows 7, didn’t ship until 2009. I can’t help but wonder whether Apple’s recent focus on annual significant-but-not-hubristic (read: Longhorn) updates to Mac OS X is an attempt to do the opposite of what Microsoft did to lose its edge with Windows. The annual schedule keeps OS X from stagnating, and keeps Apple from biting off way more than it can chew, leading to a years-long death march that never actually ships. (See also: Copland and Pink from Apple’s own history.)
But in avoiding the problems of stagnation and hubris, it feels like Apple has run into a different problem: nothing ever feels settled and stable. If the pattern Apple has established the last two years holds, by the time the loose screws get tightened in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, we’ll be getting developer betas of iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 at WWDC. And as Guy English has keenly remarked numerous times, the annual schedule means that by now — that is, January — a lot of engineering talent in Cupertino is being directed to next year’s OS releases, leaving less talent on the task of tightening the remaining loose screws in last year’s.
Apple’s decade-ago development schedule for OS X now seems downright leisurely.1 10.0 was a glorified public alpha — more of a proof of concept than a usable OS. 10.1 followed just a few months later in September 2001. 10.2 shipped in August 2002, 10.3 in October 2003, and 10.4 (Tiger) slowed things down by not shipping until April 2005. That schedule was close to annual, but in those years, Apple was just picking low-hanging fruit. Mac OS X was incomplete, inconsistent, and slow when it debuted. Those first few years were about making it more complete, consistent, and fast. It’s fair to say, in hindsight, that 10.4 Tiger was the first good release of Mac OS X, the first one that truly delivered on the promise of a union between Mac OS and NeXTStep.
And then 10.5 (Leopard) didn’t ship until October 2007, after having been promised for June of that year. That was the time Apple issued a decidedly Jobsian “Hotnews” post acknowledging that Leopard — which even if it had shipped on time would have appeared more than two years after 10.4 — would be delayed an additional four months because Apple had pulled engineering resources to work on the original iPhone release.
It was then another two years before we got 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which Apple proudly marketed as having no new features. That’s not true, of course — Snow Leopard had plenty of new features, including significant new technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, Apple’s solution to parallel computing. But it really was true that Snow Leopard didn’t introduce many new user-facing features. It was exactly what Apple billed it as: a shoring up of the OS’s technical foundations. It was then another two years before the release of 10.7 (Lion) in June 2011.
So from April 2005 through June 2011, Apple released only three major updates to Mac OS X, one of which had “no new features”. Again: an almost leisurely pace by recent standards. But this led to criticism that Apple only cared about iOS. Predictions that Apple would soon enough abandon the Mac were common.
It’s a hard balance to strike. When Mac OS X releases were roughly biannual, we complained that Apple was neglecting it. Now that the releases are annual, we’re complaining that they’re going too fast.
Guy English, earlier this week, regarding Marco Arment’s argument that “We don’t need major OS releases every year”:
Sure, it’s a pain in the ass for us at times. But “we don’t” is starting to echo through the people for whom iOS devices were a revelation. These devices made people believe in the magic of technology again. Now? I hear a lot about planned obsolescence and buggy software.
“No! I know these people and I swear that’s not at all their intent!”
That really only goes so far.
The worst thing is that it’s seldom anything big, onerous or serious. It’s just weird little things that don’t work that add up to create the impression that “computers” are incomprehensible.
I don’t regret upgrading from iOS 7 to 8, or from Mac OS X 10.9 to 10.10. I definitely don’t want to switch to Android or Windows. But I’d like to think that a year from now, I’ll be running new versions of iOS and OS X that don’t do much more than what today’s versions do — instead, that they just do those same things more reliably and consistently.
My hope is that the reliability issues we are seeing in iOS and Mac OS X in recent releases are largely the inevitable result of Apple going through numerous transitions simultaneously. Extensions, XPC, iCloud Drive, Continuity — these things require coordination between all three of Apple’s platforms (mobile, desktop, cloud). That what we’ve been seeing the last few years is this decade’s equivalent of the first few years of Mac OS X — rapid development and flux that precedes an era of relative stability and a slower pace of change. Let iPhone, iPad, and Mac settle in — and let the rapid change and flux flow through Apple Watch, CarPlay, a new Apple TV, and whatever else comes next. ★
iOS has always been on an annual schedule, with .0 major releases accompanying each new iPhone generation, but even there, some of those iOS releases weren’t very ambitious in terms of new features. Apple was busy picking low-hanging fruit — iOS 3’s biggest feature was Cut/Copy/Paste. (Seriously, we went two years without Cut/Copy/Paste — crazy, right?) ↩
iPads don’t have MagSafe, and generally aren’t used while charging, so maybe this new MacBook is supposed to work like an iPad, unplugged. Possible, I suppose, but I think this train of logic would lead one to argue that Apple should stop making MacBooks and everyone should just use iPads. The whole point of MacBooks and iPads being separate devices with completely different form factors is that people use them for different tasks, and in different environments. iPads are usually held in hand,1 lessening the need for MagSafe protection. Plus, even if this new MacBook has absolutely staggering battery life, if people can plug it in while using it, they will, at least sometimes, which means MagSafe trip protection would still be useful.
Note too that iPads come with Lightning cables that are only 3 feet long. MacBooks come with very long cables. If this new MacBook ships without MagSafe of any kind, perhaps the cable is only 3 feet long, iPad-style, reducing the chances that you even could position it in a way that the cable could be tripped over. That’d sure be frustrating for anyone who leaves the house with an uncharged MacBook, though.
Maybe it’ll still have MagSafe, but somewhere else on the cable. A lot of readers suggested that the MagSafe connector could move to the AC adapter, or that you’d use a MagSafe-to-USB-Type-C dongle. Requiring a dongle would be gross (and easily lost). I’m not sure what to think of a MagSafe connector on the AC adapter, but something along these lines seems like the most likely answer.
Apple Watch-style inductive charging. That’s a great idea, but I’m not aware of any inductive technology that carries sufficient current to power something as big as a laptop. If any company could bring such technology to market this year, it’d be Apple, but I’ll believe it when I see it. But also: where would this connect on the MacBook? If it’s on the bottom, wouldn’t it prop up the whole laptop at an angle? The sides are too thin. That leaves the back of the display, like maybe it’d connect on the Apple logo. That strikes me as ungainly.2 ★
Yes, I know, many people use hardware keyboards and prop their iPads laptop-style on a table or desk for writing, but I think it’s fair to say most iPad usage is hand-held. ↩
Speaking of Apple Watch-like technology, Mark Gurman, in his report on this purported new MacBook, also claimed that its trackpad no longer physically clicks. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder if they’re introducing “taptic” feedback. Apple has always prided itself on the quality of its trackpads — they’re the best in the industry, by a long shot. iOS touchscreens don’t have any physical feedback, but they do have *visual* feedback when you tap and drag. And on the Mac, *clicking* and *tapping* are two different things. I can’t help but think you’d want some sort of physical feedback — and if it doesn’t actually click, that means haptic feedback. ↩