Monday, October 24, 2011

Feature Creep, or Sour Grapes?

Last week, Andy Rubin, Senior Vice President of Google’s Mobile division aimed some criticism at Apple’s new Siri software, stating “I don’t believe your phone should be an assistant.  Your phone is a tool for communicating.  You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.”  Is this a legitimate criticism, or just an attempt to fling mud at Android’s chief competitor?

Mr. Rubin does have a point that is often valid.  Products often get worse as you add things to them, instead of better.  If you’ve spent any time on the Long Island Sound, you may have seen a hybrid vessel that is half sailboat, half motorboat.  I am not alone in the opinion that they combine the worst attributes of each, and the advantages of neither.  Fred Brooks in his landmark book The Mythical Man-Month shares the observation that great architecture comes not from adding feature upon feature, but sticking to a spare elegance.  Bruce Lee expressed similar sentiments when he developed the core principles of Jeet Kune Do.

Mr. Rubin adds emotional depth to his argument when he points out the proper recipient of communication is not the device itself, but people through the device.  This conjures up images of armies of socially isolated users, using their phones as a pathetic stand-in for real human interaction, presumably because they have no friends and can’t get a date.  Most of us know some people for whom this image has some resonance.  The idea that it might spread like wildfire to all iPhone customers is chilling.

Does his point make sense here?

In order to analyze this more objectively, we need to take a closer look at what Siri actually does, and figure out if those are truly features that belong on our smartphones, or if they are examples of inappropriate feature creep.  Siri is versatile, so it’s difficult to pin down the features with any level of precision.  However, we can get a reasonable view by taking a look at the examples that Apple provided in the “Introducing Siri” video that was released with the iPhone 4S (  In this video, we see people:
-Checking messages
-Sending texts/emails
-Setting a reminder
-Playing music
-Checking traffic
-Checking weather
-Looking up basic facts
-Setting a timer

In almost every case, this is functionality which already existed in the iPhone, via the Operating system or the browser.  They also exist in Android.  The counter-examples might be the reminder feature, which is a recent addition to iOS 5, and the timer.  However, there has been a thriving market for personal organization software for iOS for quite some time – it’s the main reason I bought my iPad, so the reminder feature is really nothing new.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that neither is the timer.  So I feel justified in saying that Siri doesn’t really add any new functionality to the iPhone.  What it adds is a new interface.  The video also points out that this new interface makes the iPhone much more usable to the visually impaired.

So Mr. Rubin is really criticizing is the addition of a new interface to existing functionality.  It’s hard to make a serious case that this detracts from the elegance or usability of the phone.  There are certainly times when it won’t be of use, especially in areas with high background noise, or where speaking aloud is socially unacceptable.  But there are also numerous times when a user’s hands are otherwise occupied, and this becomes a way to use the iPhone when it would not have otherwise been usable.

So sorry Andy, I’m not buying it.  Adding a new, optional interface to my device doesn’t mean I’m spending all my time talking to my phone, it means I’m accomplishing the same tasks I was before in a more convenient way.  Now if only Apple would release Siri for my iPad…

No comments:

Post a Comment