Siri: Please Dispose of my Mouse and Keyboard

“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside. ” — John F. Kennedy

Siri on the iPhone is a game changer, but does it also portend a change on the Macintosh side? It won’t be long before gestures plus voice completely eliminate the mouse and keyboard, and if you think you can’t fine-tune text that way, leave it to Apple engineers to prove you wrong. But how will Apple get there? How will the Mac evolve?

I think it was 2004 when I was on the Apple campus for a meeting. Dr. Kim Silverman and I had bumped into each other in the lobby of 1 Infinite Loop, and he wanted to show me the latest in voice recognition technology at Apple. I had some time, so I accompanied him to his office.

The first thing he did after he opened his office door was, as he was hanging up his coat, turn to his Mac and say, “Mac, open my e-mail.”

Dr. Kim Silverman is Apple’s voice recognition guru. And ever since then, I have sensed that Apple has been itching for a breakthrough in this technology.

Fast forward to the year 2149*, at least as shown on Fox’s new Monday night show, Terra Nova

Here’s what the computer in the medical lab looks like.

terra Nova

Source: Terra Nova on Fox Broadcasting Co.

I turned to my wife and said: “We won’t have to wait until the year 2149. That’s what my office will look like in five years.” I note that there is no mouse or keyboard on the table, and while it’s just a TV show vision, it’s a compelling one.

Reading the Customer - Literally

It’s fairly easy to see how the future is going to go with Siri and without the venerable mouse. I can even imagine the keyboard being threatened more quickly than I had thought. Here’s why. In the past, technology development was solely the brain child of a researcher or two and allowed to fail or succeed by luck or happenstance. Nowadays, technology development is also driven by the feedback companies get on the Internet directly from our devices because of embedded feedback mechanisms.

For example, your text input to Siri is uploaded to an Apple server and processed there. That’s why you’ll see Siri say, “Sorry, I’m having trouble with the network connection.” when the Siri system is overloaded, as it was on the morning of October 17. (I’m wondering if Apple now regrets getting out of the supercomputer business.) Also, for years, Apple has been collecting utilization profiles in Snow Leopard and now Lion.

As a by-product, Apple obtains a lot of insight into both our habits and our interests. That allows Apple to push the technology forward in ways that appeal to us, but which are often not evident even to astute observers of Apple. That knowledge base drives Apple’s future directions. It’s one of Apple’s secrets to success**.

That’s why, by the way, you shouldn’t pay any attention to technical columnists who argue that the keyboard and mouse are essential and won’t ever go away.

The Impact of Siri

We know that Siri is really better for those mobile systems that have tiny keyboards. The tiny virtual keyboards on the iPhone were essential before Siri, but may soon become an afterthought. Will they be there in the future? How does the direction users are taking on the incredibly popular iPhone and iPad influence Apple’s thinking about the Mac? Should Siri be ported to the Mac and allowed to become dominant there for, say, dictation and e-mail? How much time does a typical user, who isn’t a writer, spend typing? Already, we’ve seen how there’s been a shift from e-mail to Twitter and text messaging, easily handled by Siri.

Here’s my analogy. The brilliance of the iPad is that there is a subset of tasks that average customers engage in. They browse the Internet. They send e-mails. They read tweets. They order and read digital books. They watch videos. They don’t need to write Java code or install printer drivers. The iPad encapsulates what most users need to do.

In a similar vein, the feedback Apple is getting from its devices is probably telling (or will tell) Apple that the mouse and keyboard are also a dying species.

Going Forward by Going Backwards?

Certainly the Mac has the horsepower to run Siri, but look at the sales numbers. Apple is only recently selling four million Macs in a quarter, 13 weeks. Over the weekend, the company sold four million iPhone 4S’s. Regarding Siri, one of our TMO editors opined, “Well, the Mac certainly seems to be an afterthought.”

All of a sudden, I’m wondering whether it makes sense to do a retro install of iOS technologies, like Siri, into the Mac. Or maybe, based on customer data, it makes better sense to just move forward swiftly with iOS. Yet there is uncertainty. We see in OS X Lion Apple’s attempt to instill a few of the best iOS technologies, but is that a vision of the future? Or a band-aid to shore up Mac sales and differentiate from the classic PC in the short term?

How would customers react to a future iMac that’s a vertical slab of beautiful, transparent glass, but has no keyboard or mouse? Would that be too much of a shock? Should the goal be to preserve the Mac line by forcing new iOS technologies back into it, or let the Mac evolve in a more natural way?

I recently saw an Apple patent application for a rotating screen on a MacBook. I can imagine a future MacBook Air in which, when the display is open, runs OS X with a keyboard. But when it’s closed, display side out, it runs iOS like an iPad. I see the patent not as a definite product but an attempt by Apple to cover its bases as it struggles with this OS transformation.

Charting the Future

When I look at the display on Terra Nova I’m not sure, in a whimsical, literary way, that I see a Mac. Will there come a time when we sense that the Mac is being left behind just because it’s not the right platform for energetic work in the post-PC era? Will the extreme popularity of Siri drive Apple to bring it to the Mac or the converse: to focus on iOS to exclusion because of Apple’s evolving vision for the future? Apple has tended to do that in the past, always, relentlessly leaving the past behind. Without Steve Jobs, this is the challenge faced by Apple executives.

Terra Nova

Source: Terra Nova on Fox Broadcasting Co.

My gut feeling is that there will be a future Apple family of gesture and voice-based flat displays. Some will be carried around in your pocket, like an iPhone; some will be carried around in your hand or lab coat pocket, like an iPad and some will bristle with light and color on the desktop like the photos above.

None of them will have mice or keyboards. I’m betting they won’t be traditional Macs.


* Which is really 85 million BCE in the show. Got that?

** Is Apple back on track for Knowledge Navigator? It’s an obsession for some, ancient history to be forgotten for others.