Saturday, November 5, 2011

Apple Siri Fails Second Day In a Row

 After acquiring Siri in April 2010, Apple integrated the feature with its iPhone 4S. At the public launch of Siri on Oct.4, Senior Vice President Scott Forestall had showed off the product's muscle.

However, the past four weeks have seen many ups and downs for the feature, with the most recent outage being on Friday. For the second day in a row, Siri suffered intermittent failures that prevented people from using it. While Siri service appeared to be restored for many people during parts of Thursday and Friday, it often quickly became unavailable again.

Siri needs to connect to external servers to perform any of its tasks. For many users Thursday, there’s been only one response to any query: “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble connecting to the network.”

Though the service has proven to be a boon for Apple, frustrations over its bugs have been plaguing it as consumers wonder when the assistant will finally outgrow its beta period.

It’s unclear whether users will cut Apple more slack over the Siri problems than they did over MobileMe, an online service whose troubled introduction in 2008 turned into a rare debacle for Apple. Since then, Apple has made big investments in its online efforts, including a major data center in North Carolina.

Siri depends on a network connection even for tasks that, in theory, wouldn’t seem to require access to the Internet. While it’s understandable that Siri would need to contact the Internet to download, say, listings for weather in a user’s area, it also needs online access to schedule a lunch appointment and play music stored on an iPhone.

For the moment, at least, Apple’s new Siri feature is back online and cheerfully responding to instructions, but it’s hard to say how long that’s going to last. All the trouble raises the question: Why can’t Apple get cloud services right?

No matter how functional your cloud service is or how well you’ve designed the interface, users won’t care if they can’t access it. This is even more obvious with a service like Siri that loses even the most basic functionality when Apple’s servers are down. Because Siri depends on servers to do the heavy computing required for voice recognition, the service is useless without that connection.

In fairness, Apple launched Siri as a beta, an unusual move for the company, and an indication that there were a few kinks to work out. But a beta label usually means that the software is still under development, not that there aren't enough servers or competent technicians to keep the service running.

There's a broader issue and lesson to be learned from it: How much should mobile devices depend on cloud services for key functionality.

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