It’s been a pretty eventful October, first with the launch of the iPhone 4S and then Steve Jobs’ death the day after. Initially, Jobs’ death brought about a sinking feeling, as if I’d lost a close friend, although I’d never even met him personally.But, the more I reflect on him and Apple, a different opinion emerged. So, this entry will be a reflection on Jobs and his relatively new passion, Siri. I wont’ even attempt to be thorough in my assessment of Jobs; this is rather a cursory attempt to balance all the superlatives written about him in mainstream media and break out of that walled zen garden that is Apple.
It all started with Al Gore’s comment about Jobs being a man that the earth sees once in 250 years and the idolization of him in the media . But, even the pope needs to create miracles to deserve sainthood. Have they heard about Einstein, Gandhi, MLK? It’s just like someone who stares at the sun at noon and proclaims that it’ss the brightest and biggest star in the galaxy—even the universe. Jobs has been the tech star equivalent for the last few years. He made technology cool and helped redefine geek chic by thrusting Apple squarely into the pop culture lexicon. The biggest celebrity news these days is not about Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber; it’s about iPhones and tablets.
From a Gladwellian perspective, some of Jobs’ success can be attributed to luck or happenstance, as it were. After all, he was born in 1955 in the SF Bay Area—the epicenter of Silicon Valley almost—and he was at the right age and place to take advantage of the burgeoning personal computing scene. I guess it also helped to have a home brew computing club in his neighborhood where, most notably, he eventually met someone named Wozniak. But, when you think of Apple, you think of Steve Jobs and not the “other” Steve. The New York Times recently had a great article on maximizing the return on one’s luck. Though that piece covered Bill Gates, it is equally applicable to Jobs as well.
As successful as he was, not all of Jobs’ products were an overnight success and he didn’t have a great vision for many of them. The iPod was not initially successful when it came out in 2001. Only after iTunes debuted in 2003 did sales really take off. Tomes have been written how Jobs had figured out about iPhone and app store all the way back in 2005, when the iPhone project first got started. Most people ignore that it was not the iPhone but rather the disastrous ROKR (a joint project with Motorola) that was Jobs’ first venture into mobile phones. The same thing could be said about the app store. The name itself was borrowed from Marc Benioff (of Salesforce.com). The app store didn’t come into existence until 2008, a full year after hackers installed their own apps on jailbroken iPhones. It is to bring some order to the chaos and maintain curation that the XCode IDE for designing apps was released to the public. To rephrase Einstein’s quote, Jobs could see further because he was standing on the shoulders of giants like Dieter Rams (Braun’s designer) and Clayton Christensen.
Another widely-shared notion was that Jobs didn’t give a hoot about Wall Street, but that’s not entirely true, either. Jobs cared as much as anyone about Apple stock and he privately settled a stock options backdating case with the SEC. Another case in point is when Jobs joined investor call investor call in 2010 to issue a strong statement about Android. Apple, far from being a walled zen garden, is a high wire act, balancing passion and profits, but sadly they lost their best acrobat!
Jobs’ parting gift to the world could be Siri. It is the first ever product that Apple released in beta version. Siri might a small step forward in mobile phone evolution but it’s a big leap into the semantic web. To provide a bit more detail, old forms of AI agents simply search a problem domain for an answer. One such “intelligent agent” with huge backend databases is the Watson supercomputer . Siri ushers a brave new world where agents behave in an engaging and intelligent ways and can accomplish tasks at the beck and call of its master—things that even personal secretaries find difficult to do. This could be a boon to handicapped and elderly users.
Users might want to adapt to Siri to fully avail of it’s capabilities. Speaking slowly and clearly, saving proper names and places( work and home) to contacts, saving important events to calendar, are many such little things that help Siri better understand you. Lately, the apposphere is abuzz with talk of Sir’s API. While the API will give apps a powerful input/output voice interface, an even more salient promise lies in Siri’s ability to navigate the semantic web. To this end, I am looking for a Siri SDK and/or metatags syntax that will identify individual applications with their capabilities. I even foresee a “Yelp” like crowd-sourced reviews of apps that can help Siri separate reliable apps from others.
I want to make another note about intelligent systems in general. If Siri ever really evolves as a human personality clone, drastic changes to iPhone hardware need to be made. CPUs with massive parallel processing and higher capacity hard disks are some of those changes. Also, it is not enough to deeply integrate Siri with the existing OS—a new generation of firmware, and maybe even a different semantic OS, needs to be created.
Lately, it seems like everyone’s saying that companies who can master social, mobile and game layers will rule the tech world. Should we add a “semantic” layer to that list now, too? Companies might be better off honing in on a particular technology rather than going after all these rapidly-evolving moving targets. Only time will tell.