The Evolution of the Mac, Pt 1: Siri

The Mac must continue to evolve. Technology alone will drive it forward in era of tablets. But the Mac legacy also supports an enduring mindset, certain operations and peripherals, and a wealth of capabilities and apps. How should the Mac evolve with that spirit in mind? In Part 1 of this series, we look at Siri integration with the Mac.


Often, for convenience, it's easy to think in a binary form. (Like the binary language of moisture evaporators.) However, given the rich and lengthly heritage of the Mac, it's helpful to dig much deeper.

In the case of the Mac, it has a 28 year history, and that has carried along with it an immense culture. Millions of users grew up with the Mac, and while its technology has evolved, if one were to place a modern Mac, keyboard and mouse next to a 1984 Mac, one would notice the huge technical advances yet remain delighted by the purity of the lineage.

2013 vs 1984.  Vast changes but unmistakable lineage.

What that suggests, I think, is that despite the radical rate of change going on today in technology, certain aspects of the Mac need to be preserved.  In other words, the Mac's steady evolution isn't going to take a radical, binary turn. Rather, in time, we will see further development that remains true to the Mac's legacy of operational design yet continues to advance the state of the art. One of those advances right now is Siri.

Siri's Limitations

Siri was originally implemented on the iPhone. That's a small device with a limited display and capabilities. iOS, derived from OS X, has been considerably simplified. That is, iOS is a mobile OS and doesn't have to support the kinds of activities a full-blown Mac Pro tower does with its sophisticated UNIX-based OS X.

What that means is that the limits of Siri, as a new technology, are acceptable on an iPhone. Basic information lookup and the launching of apps "Launch contacts," is more or less all that's required in the mobile environment.

The Mac is a different story. Over the years, a wealth of capabilities have evolved on the Mac. Users of the Mac would have natural expectations of Siri that might not, would not, be able to be fulfilled.

Siri, install gcc, launch Eclipse, copy down this C++ script, execute it, and then set up an Automator action to run the script daily. And let me see that data on the Amazon rain forest I was reviewing last week.

Siri is, in essence, an immature young lady (in the United States, anyway), not yet ready to flex her muscles or be pressed into the highest level of service in the full environment of the Mac. Apple, well aware of what Siri might be asked to do on a Mac -- and fail -- would naturally be mindful of a bad user experience that could soil Siri's fine reputation.

If it's true that Apple might bring Siri to the Mac is OS X 10.9, then I would expect that the challenge would be to very carefully define and market just exactly what Siri could and could not do on a Mac in the first release. And there is good motivation: Apple would like Siri to be our favorite search engine, as our Bryan Chaffin has reminded us.

It's the Network, Stupid

Siri also depends on a network connection. For a mobile device, that's a no brainer. One expects to have an ever present network connection for an iPhone or iPad. However, Macs are occasionally used in environments where there is no network connection: submarines, some surface ships*, a government or military SCIF, wilderness or military outposts, and so on.

Siri's capabilities would have to be partitioned so that she can perform certain functions in isolation, benefitting from the power of a Mac's CPU, or else the user would have to be aware that Siri can't be used in certain situations.

Working out these details is almost certainly the reason Siri hasn't arrived on the Mac. However, as the technology of Siri evolves, these problems will be solved.

The Next Step

Integrating Siri with the Mac will be just one ore of those subtle steps that moves the Mac along on its technology arc. What it will lead to isn't yet clear. Will Siri eliminate the need for the mouse and keyboard early on, or will it have to coexist with those tools for many more years while she matures and Apple can get some feedback from its OS monitoring tools? Probably the latter.

Setting expectations and delivering a first class user experience is what Apple is all about. When Siri can do that on a Mac, in some initial, beneficial way Apple will deliver it. But Siri may still spend its formative years on the Mac growing, evolving and depending on the powerful CPUs available on that platform.

In Part 2, I'll look at touch screen Macs.


* Years ago, my wife worked for the U.S. Antarctic Program. Aboard the ice breaker she worked on, (Nathan B. Palmer) there was no continuous Internet connection. But they had a boatload of Macs. (Internet access is better now.)