Dave Jacobs gave iPhone 4S smartphones to all the road warriors on this staff for Christmas because of Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant built into the latest edition of the Apple device.
TechKnowledge Consulting Corp. installs data networks and other tech systems for big companies moving into new buildings. The firm covers a four-county area around Houston, which means that sales reps—17 of the company's 19 employees—are constantly in their visiting construction sites or prospective customers. Jacobs sprang for iPhones with Siri to keep workers from swiping cellphone touch screens while they drive. "I can assure you it was occurring because I was the worst offender," he says. On a two-and-a-half hour trip from Houston to Austin, Texas, for example, "I'd be on the phone the entire way up there, and looking at the occasional email and text in between," he says.
To casual iPhone users, Siri might still be more novelty than necessity. But at companies such as TechKnowledge, management is getting serious about what it can do at work.
A beta version of Siri debuted in October as a much-touted feature of Apple's new iPhone 4S. The innovation uses algorithms based on mathematical probabilities to "understand" when people ask questions and searches online or in other databases for answers. Apple said shoppers scooped up 4 million iPhone 4S devices the first weekend they were out but hasn't disclosed sales figures since.
At work, people are using Siri as a hands-free way to check and send business email and text messages, schedule appointments and make phone calls—whether they're driving or not.
Other, more-complex applications are starting to appear. Mobile app developer Avatron Software Inc. is marketing a 99-cent program called Air Dictate that turns Siri into a dictation machine that translates speech into written text on a Mac. Wolfram Alpha, an information technology company that serves up answers to some Siri queries, used it to build a voice-activated search tool for browsing the Best Buy product catalog as a test case. The company now is compiling other databases that will be accessed via voice controls, including a repository of common human resource department information that's slated to debut later this year, according to C. Alan Joyce, Wolfram Alpha's socio-economic content manager.
Industry experts expect more apps to follow once Apple publishes Siri's application programming interface, or API, the source code that developers use to add functions to an existing software program. According to tech industry publications and blogs, that could happen sooner rather than later; Apple hasn't announced a date.
Meanwhile, iPhone rivals Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are developing or improving voice-activated controls for the next generation of smartphones that use their respective operating systems.
The activity is part of a trend to put voice controls in all kinds of tech gadgets, a phenomenon that was evident at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Nuance Communications Inc., which has produced voice recognition software for years and is at least partially responsible for powering Siri, showed voice controls for TVs and computers at the mammoth electronics expo. "Speech recognition will be a ubiquitous interface for any computer," whether it's in a car or tablet computer, a Nuance executive told CNNMoney in a video interview at the convention. "People would prefer to interact with something that has a personality that understands them. That's the future of technology."
Siri may have the early lead on voice-controlled services, but most of the buzz surrounding it until now has been about silly things people can get it to do and say. On Twitter, comments like "Siri, please answer all of my staff's idiotic questions" are common. So are complaints about how well it works. "I had to ask Siri the same question 3 times in a row," one Twitter user shared, and another, "I can't get Siri to understand me!!"
Notwithstanding Siri's perceived faults, more employees are trying it in everyday business situations. Russell Dunkin, a certified financial planner for a Wheeling, West Virginia, wealth management firm, uses Siri from his car to schedule follow-up appointments with clients he's just visited instead of waiting until he's back in the office. "I need to add it to my calendar immediately. If not, someone else might book me, or worse, I forget altogether," he says. Dunkin's phone is synched with Microsoft Outlook and Salesforce.com, "so any calendar [item] or task that I schedule appears everywhere," he says.
Jacobs, the TechKnowledge Consulting principal, says outfitting his staff with iPhone 4S phones was expensive—about $500 each plus a monthly usage plan—but worth it for his staff and himself. "The nice thing about voice recognition and Siri is I can do substantially anything I need to do with one button," he says. "If I'm going to be five minutes late for a meeting, I can text my co-worker and never take my hands off the wheel."
As more people use Siri to "communicate with" their phones, offices could get noisier, at least initially. It happened when cellphones debuted and people needed constant reminders to keep their voices down and put devices on vibrate during meetings, says Barbara Pachter, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, business and social media etiquette expert. "A new way of doing something appears and people are so excited or overwhelmed they don't realize how they're using it impacts others," Pachter says. If you're using Siri, "Be aware of your surroundings. If you're talking in your regular conversational voice, you shouldn't disturb others."
Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce Management contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon. To comment, email email@example.com.