Siri outage leaves iPhone 4S owners bereft

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Siri may be the most prominent feature on the iPhone 4S, but in truth it’s only partly “on” your phone, as a network-related outage this past Thursday demonstrated. iPhone 4S users were cut off from their virtual assistant, their queries answered only by messages that Siri could not make a network connection.

The outage, first reported by VentureBeat, lasted the better part of the day, with service patchily restored throughout the early evening. When contacted, Apple did not offer a comment about the outage.

While it’s not surprising that a network problem would prevent Siri from making Internet-based searches, many users don’t realize that the feature's voice-recognition depends entirely on network connectivity; an outage, therefore, means that Siri can’t even perform tasks like making a calendar appointment, setting a timer, or creating a reminder.

In theory, this network reliance keeps Siri's responses speedy: Rather than processing and analyzing your voice on the phone itself, iOS sends that audio to Apple’s data center, where computers that are vastly more powerful than your smartphone can speedily crunch the information. When there's an outage on that side of the system, however, it can turn Siri from super-smart to non-responsive in an instant.

The same is true for Apple’s dictation feature, which processes voice information in a similar fashion. (This is also the case with many other iOS-based voice recognition systems, such as Nuance’s Dragon Dictation and its related products.)

Macworld’s editorial director, Jason Snell, said that during the downtime, Siri only responded to queries with “I can’t connect to the network right now.” Other users reported more colorful responses that have by now become a trademark of the virtual assistant.

When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, it labeled Siri as “beta” software, though the suggestion was that this had more to do with eventual support for more languages and additional services.

While the dependence on network connectivity is part of what makes Siri possible, it’s clear that the approach has its shortcomings. Not merely in terms of unexpected outages, but also in instances where network connectivity is unavailable—in a subway car, for example, or on airplanes (though I think most of us can agree that that’s not necessarily a bad thing). It seems likely that as the processing power of smartphones increases, the technology used to enable Siri might be eventually be handled on the device itself, but that day is probably still a ways off.

For now, there’s nothing users can do to protect against such an outage. It seems that Siri, just like any other assistant, needs to take a sick day every once in a while.

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