May 2, 2012

Oh, the Power that Siri Wields

The small screens on mobile devices tend to limit long discussions - all that typing! That's why most people have found it easier to use unified communications (UC) features from a PC or laptop than from a smartphone.

However, the Apple iPhone 4S's voice-recognition application, Siri (official name: Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface), presents an opportunity to change that. Using the voice-activated interface, users could overcome their dependence on text and and gain far easier access to UC features and functions.

However, Siri has a ways to go before revolutionizing the mobile UC community. There are two big reasons. First, at least at this juncture, Siri has a few reliability flaws. Second, its consumption rate could quickly wreak more havoc with mobile operators' network capacity planning attempts.

Adaptable, but Fickle and Chatty

Siri is an integral part of Apple's iOS 5 operating system. It uses a natural-language user interface and is intended to serve as a virtual personal assistant to users. As such, it is promoted as adapting to individual user preferences, such as UC features, over time. But from a usability standpoint, Apple user communities have been full of examples of Siri working less well than advertised. In addition, several articles and blogs have shown through humorous dialogs how confusing and confused the Siri interface can be when it doesn't work as expected.

As Siri matures, however, this situation will more than likely improve. Alternatively, it might be up to the UC system and cloud vendors to come up with a better voice-activated interface for their own products and services.

But the biggest problem for mobile UC could be that Siri considerably increases a mobile device's data consumption. Siri is a bandwidth hog that could, along with Apple's  iCloud and other over-the-air synchronization, backup and storage services, clog networks and even impact government spectrum allocation plans.

Just How Talkative Is She?

A recent blog post at network performance management company AppNeta shared the results of a test, using AppNeta's own PathView Cloud product, of how much bandwidth Siri consumes. For example, the voice command, "Dial 781-555-5555" consumed 38Kbps, while the question, "What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?" used 29.4Kbps. Both consumed far more bandwidth than their text equivalents.

Some organizations, such as Arieso, a mobile network management company, estimate that iPhone 4S users consume twice as much data as iPhone 4 users and three times as much as iPhone 3G users, citing Siri as one reason. Not only does Siri use more bandwidth for the equivalent functionality of text; voice activation eases use so that users tend to use more functions on their iPhones and, as a result, generate more traffic. That's good for users, provided the bandwidth is there. But it significantly adds to the wireless load stress on mobile operators' networks.

In fact, many of the mobile network operators offering the iPhone have shifted from unlimited data plans to limited plans with data caps to discourage use above and beyond a certain level. It's widely reported that a relatively few heavy-use subscribers - those who continually record high-definition video, download images and download music to play on their phones - are causing most of the network congestion. In addition, the Apple iPhone in general, with its default alerts, backups and pings, is known to generate more traffic than other phones without the user actively doing anything.

What Happens Now?

There is not much end users can do to deal with this problem except to turn off automatic default pings and alerts or voluntarily restrict their usage. This is an unlikely scenario, especially for the 10 percent of mobile users who reportedly consume the 90 percent of wireless bandwidth. So what is likely to happen?
The FCC might have to yet again rethink its wireless spectrum allocation plans. Network providers will try to buy spectrum owned by others. Providers might implement more Wi-Fi locations for access in congested areas such as New York and San Francisco. Usage billing will probably become more prevalent, as will "throttling" of the bandwidth of heavy users - with ever-lower throttling thresholds. Providers might even push for modified applications that reduce the data volumes consumed.

1 Comment

Yankee Group today published an interesting peek at why IBM is banning Siri from its BYOD-friendly network environment for security reasons. For those concerned with security, seems like a worthwhile read.

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