Apple’s digital assistant Siri, which ships with the new iPhone 4S, has gotten a lot of attention the last few days. Initially the reaction to Apple’s new flagship phone wasn’t that enthusiastic. This all changed when people actually got the chance to test this new user interaction technology. An experiment, feeding Siri awkward requests, showed that she(*) can provide smart and funny responses. Further, Wired gave the iPhone4S a raving review, with Siri as its main reason. Together with Google Voice, Siri was heralded as the voice powered artificial intelligence that is ‘shaping up to become the next-generation user interface’.
The adoption of Siri as the next generation user interface
The use of voice to control devices could indeed provide a whole new level of ease-of-use, beyond the intuitive user interaction multi-touch provided us. However, that heavily depends on how well the voice recognition (from audio to words in a sentence), the natural language processing (the meaning of the sentence) and the inference of context is (e.g. what is the current context in terms of time, place, current activity of the user and how does it relate to the request?). If one of these processing steps fail (to often), users won’t get the desired result, leaving them frustrated and abandoning the technology.
However, if Siri really is as convenient as Wired’s review suggests, wide use of this technology can be foreseen, especially when the technology further matures in the future. If it works properly, the convenience it will bring to complete tasks fast (find information, book a flight, reserve a table in a restaurant, etc.) will compel many users to adopt it.
And if users want it, other manufacturers will come with their own version of a digital assistant. (By the way, this could spark a new ‘patent war’ in the future. I think all big industrial players have patents in the area of voice control systems.)
How Siri and her offspring will bring the semantic web to life
Currently Siri can only interact with one (?) external service, Yelp. Based on the concepts it understood from the voice command and the interpretation of what the request specifically is about it uses the Yelp API to e.g. find a restaurant.
Now, that’s a great deal for Yelp (and the businesses listed on it), likely it will see it’s service used much more extensively, implying more business. So in short Siri means business!
Since Siri must have an understanding of concepts and what a user request is about, in the future it could in principle use any service through an API. However, without semantics (information about the meaning) of what can be queried through an API this knowledge would need to be hardcoded, just like specific knowledge about the Yelp API must have been added to Siri. For Siri and other digital agents to make use of all the information and services on the web, leveraging its potential to its full extent, it would need information about the meaning of the content of web pages, the meaning of API calls it can make for specific service, what it gets back when calling APIs and how this information needs to be represented.
In short what Siri and her offspring would need is a semantic web, in its broadest sense. It would not only be useful to have information on what content of web pages mean, and how these different pieces of information and concepts are linked, it would also be useful to have semantics related to API calls of web services
So why would we all integrate semantics in to our web content and service APIs? That is a question that didn’t have a strong answer until now. I already gave my new answer earlier in this post: Siri means business! Sure, multiple businesses already saw the potential of the semantic web but I think that Siri and its future improvements and competitors could become the first Artificial Intelligent Agents that will be used on a scale unseen before and will prove a driving force behind businesses and individuals to together build the semantic web on large scale.
– Freddy Snijder
(*) Referring to Siri as a she feels completely natural to me, but that could be cultural bias. I don’t mean to offend anyone
Saddened to learn that Steve Jobs died yesterday at such a young age (he was 56) I immediately started writing this post. It’s a tribute to an iconic man who has strongly influenced my thinking on innovation and entrepreneurship. Before I start I would like to give some personal context to the list I’m going to share with you.
Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and due to his return the (second) rise of Apple began. His return was around the same time I started my career. In the early days I was intrigued by how Apple designed computers in a different, more fun and stylish, way. But it wasn’t until the iPod with its easy to use scrolling wheel and (later on) the iTunes store, which gave the music industry a new business model for the 21st century, that my interest really started to grow. At that time I was already working for Philips Research for multiple years, mostly developing new technologies and application to make handling of digital media easier for consumers.
Having mostly worked in a high-tech environment, which wasn’t always successful in making innovations a success on the market, I realized that innovation is much more then developing new technology. So over these years, I got increasingly interested in the question: ‘how to develop and market new products and services that are truly successful in the market?’ Steve Jobs and the innovations he, together with the rest of Apple, envisioned and made such a huge success in the market have really helped me to get answers to this question or helped validate what I’ve learned through other experiences.
This list could have been much longer, but I decided to narrow it to the few items that immediately came to mind.
Have a vision
Innovation starts with a vision. Without a vision of what we need, why we need it and how, you don’t have a global direction to drive your innovation development forward and to make the right decisions what to do and what not to do. Without a vision you can’t explain the reasoning why you are creating what you want to create, you can’t inspire others to help you out and provide meaningful insight and knowledge.
If there is one man who drives innovation forward through vision it is Steve Jobs. In the video below he talks about the importance of vision and the importance of customer experience in it, which is also an item on this list.
You will be surprised how many companies are not led through a coherent vision (and mission), where people working in these companies are not aware (enough) of a vision top management sets out, or simply don’t share the same vision. This is a big innovation showstopper, especially in the long term.
Presentation & communication
Whether you want to involve others to help you realize an innovation or you want to launch your new product or service in the market, you need to be able present and communicate your ideas, your vision, your product in a persuasive way.
The story should be simple, concise and it needs to be presented with passion. If you can’t bring out the enthusiasm in others for what you want to make or want to sell, you’re in trouble.
In the end products and services are about the experience it provides to the user. This even goes beyond having a good feature set or a great ease of use: it’s about the emotions it elicits in us and how it connects to deeper aspirations we all have in life.
To be fair, many companies already try to have a focus on user experience. At the same time many don’t really succeed in creating a great user experience. In the first video in this post Jobs explains the importance to start with the customer experience and work your way backwards to end up at technology requirements. In the next item (identity) I embedded a video of Steve Jobs explaining this from a brand perspective.
Having an engineering background this is not the first thing that came to me in the past when thinking about what makes innovation successful, but it is actually a very important topic. Without an outspoken identity, expressed through your products and through your communications with the outside world people can’t identify themselves with you and the products you want to bring to market.
Apple, with Steve Jobs at the helm, made very clear choices about what Apple stands for (‘People with passion can change the world for the better’, Think Different Campaign, 1997, see video below). What the overall ‘feeling’ is people should have using Apple products. What properties their products should have and what strategies to follow. For instance, it was chosen to create a closed system to ensure user experience, their business model and the business model for their (media) partners. You either like it or you don’t. Simplicity and user-experience were, as far as I know, always favored over more features and application scenarios. You either like it or you don’t. Apple favored a minimalistic design… You either like it or you don’t.
On a side note, this is why I think the Windows Phone OS could have a chance in the market. Its tile-based interface is so distinct; it gives identity to the phone. Ha! I guess you didn’t expect this here!
Below a great video in which Jobs talks about the Apple brand, its identity.
Innovation needs a multi-disciplinary & holistic approach
When you think about the reasons why the iPhone is such a successful product you will find that there is not one answer, there are multiple answers from different perspective. Is it the multi-touch user interaction? Is it because the iPhone is also a platform, giving room for others to innovate on top of it, through apps. Is it the iTunes and app store business model? Is it because they bought flash memory and other electronic components in huge bulks to keep the pricing low? Is it the marketing and hype created around the device? Is it because Apple has its own sales outlets, the Apple stores? I could go on for a while here.
The end conclusion is that all these aspects, routed in different disciplines matter. Even further, these different aspects build upon each other creating a ‘holistic whole’ that is the iPhone.
This insight has real consequences for how to develop new products and services: innovation development needs multidisciplinary teams, even in the earliest stages. It should continuously cycle through all the different aspects. Think design, marketing, business strategy, technology, value chain management, sales outlets, etc..
Innovation should not be completely user driven
It’s important to listen to users and learn from their feedback to improve your product. But in recent years I came to the conclusion that not everything in innovation development should be user-driven. You might try to get deep insights in to fundamental needs and aspirations of consumers and use that as inspiration for new meaningful products, but consumer won’t be able to tell you if these are the products they really want.
You, as the innovator, should have the vision of what the future needs will be and what means there will be available to create solutions that satisfies does needs. Apple showed that this is a strategy that works; start with your own vision and iteratively improve your product later on through feedback in the market.
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
– BusinessWeek, May 25 1998
Innovation is a tough game; there is no easy win. It needs a lot of persistence to fight your way through all the barriers you will encounter. The only way to do this is if you are passionate about what you want to achieve and if you are able to affect others with your passion.
Persistence and passion are at the core of Jobs’ personality in my humble opinion. Just consider his presentation, the Think Different campaign and his persistence to chase and realize his vision.
There is much more to learn from how Steve Jobs made innovation successful throughout his career. For instance, when it comes to the importance of focus, detail and timely execution, nurturing a start-up culture and seizing opportunities in a changing world instead of protecting old business models.
To put it in US president Obama’s words, with the passing away of Steve Jobs we lost a man that was “brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it”. But be assured, we will still be talking about Steve Jobs, his achievements and what we can learn from it long after this day.
This post summarizes the key points of my presentation during the Visionscapers.net beta launch workshop held on the first of December 2010. It was an inspiring event celebrating that from now on we are developing and further growing our ‘offline’ and online organization in public. Multiple other Visionscapers (this is how we call ourselves as partner members of the Visionscapers.net network) also presented during this event. The overarching theme was our increasingly networked world and its effect on how we work, organize, innovate, and on our lives in general.
Inspiring : Impressions of the Visionscapers.net Betalaunch held on the 1st of December 2010
In my presentation I introduced Visionscapers.net as a networked innovation company and what trends and thinking were fundamental to its development. You’ll find the original presentation embedded below.
I help startups or projects in their early stages, from shaping ideas and concepts to developing software for prototypes or early versions of a product or service. Some examples of start-ups I've worked on are Peerby and Whatser. Currently I'm working on Calendar42.