iOS 7 preview: Siri gets a new look, access to settings, more services, still no predictive results

iOS 7 continues to build on Siri, adding access to settings, new partner services and features, including results from Bing, Wikipedia, and Twitter, and a newly redesigned natural-languge interface

Apple introduced Siri, their personal digital assistant, in iOS 5 as a secondary, natural language interface for the iPhone, and later iPad, and iPod touch. With iOS 7, Apple has continued to add new partner-based services, but also given Siri its first redesign. Gone is the linen and beautifully rendered sports, movie, and other widgets, and in their places is the starker, more objectified and gamified look and feel that permeates the rest of system.

Here's what Apple says about Siri in iOS 7:

Siri in iOS 7 gets a new look, a new sound, and new capabilities. It features a redesigned interface that fades into view — on top of whatever’s on your screen. A clearer, more natural-sounding female or male voice makes Siri even easier to understand. It’s faster at answering questions and it checks more sources, such as Bing, Wikipedia, and Twitter. And Siri takes on extra tasks, like returning calls, playing voicemail, controlling iTunes Radio, and more.

And here's what Apple's shown off of the new partnerships and features to date:

  • Siri has a new interface, matching the new iOS 7 design language. That means layers, blur filters, and pronounced typography. In Siri's case, it also means a a return of the dynamic audio wave.

  • Siri has a new, high-quality voice - several new, high-quality voices actually. There's a new female and male voice in English, French, and German, with more to come.

  • Siri now has greater access to built-in communications app, like playing voice mail from Phone, and to Settings like brightness, and Bluetooth.

  • Siri can pull information from Twitter about what the people you follow are saying, or what's happening.

  • Siri can query Wikipedia and display results inside its own interface.

  • Siri can even search the web using Microsoft's Bing, including specifically for images, and likewise show the results inline.

Ostensibly, because Siri isn't primarily a multitouch interface - you can tap into things if you want or have to, but only after starting with voice - it doesn't benefit as much from the new iOS 7 interface. However, a consistent look is important, and in its own way the layers and blurs are every bit as rich as the old, textured skin and widgets, without being as chrome-heavy. It looks good, and downright beautiful at times.

The sound wave element harkens back to Siri's predecessor, Voice Control, and it's a fun visual. For an interface that's laden with Helvetic Neue Ultra-Thin, however, Siri's new typography can look remarkably thick at times. That's a good thing, however, as it aids in glance-ability, and an interface like Siri needs glance-ability.

Having new voices was increasingly important for Apple. The original female Siri voice wasn't exclusive to Apple, and that was an odd choice to begin with, and something others could use to graft onto Apple's attention, and competitors could use to tease them. Hopefully these new voices are original, and Apple's alone.

Access to settings nicely reflects another new iOS 7 feature, Control Center, and while both are geek-centric features, having a natural language, voice-controlled way of doing it is a huge plus.

Likewise access to more of the communications features built into iOS. Where previously Siri could find email and messages, and read messages, playing voice mail is a nice addition. So is the ability to find and show tweets. Hopefully Apple's expanded it even further, so it can find, read, and otherwise help with all messaging on iOS.

Last year, Apple added movies, sports, and restaurants to Siri, including the ability to book tables and, in the U.S., buy tickets. This year there haven't been any new commercial services added, but informational ones have gotten a boost thanks to Wikipedia and Bing. While Apple showed Google is still alive and well in Safari, going with Microsoft for Siri search is interesting. Some might assume that it's just one more casualty in Apple and Google's cold war, but Siri has always been a partnership play and it's just as possible Microsoft offered Apple the best deal. What remains to be seen is how good the results are, because that's the only thing that really matters at the end of the day.

What Apple didn't announce was any local, on-device functionality for Siri. Google's been doing this for a while, and it helps minimize network connections and backend servers as a point of failure. Basically, for any action that involves only the apps on the phone or tablet, for example, toggling a setting or adding a reminder, all voice parsing is done on the device. Only when a request needs to go online, like to check the web or check with a service, does it hit servers. Siri currently goes to the servers for everything, making it slower and subject to more failures than Google's voice tech.

Siri also didn't get was any of the predictive assistant services Google Now enjoys. Like Google on Android (and in more limited fashion in the Google Search app for iOS), Apple on iOS can aggregate all sorts of calendar, location, environmental, and social data, and can synthesize from it where we are, where we need to be, with whom, and under what conditions. Instead of waiting for us to ask, Siri could be providing it preemptively so we don't even need to ask.

Apple has shown they're doing a little bit of that with Notification Center's new Today screen, but how much remains uncertain. Perhaps they'll evolve a system complementary to Siri, rather than a component of Siri, to handle predictive assistance. That's be a shame though, since Siri has that Pixar-like personality that helps make assistant services accessible.

Ideally, a predictive Siri would replace the current notifications on the Lock screen, and the Today screen. Either way, Google seems closer to the movie version of Tony Stark's Jarvis right now than Apple, and I hope that turns around, and soon.

The updated Siri will ship as part of iOS 7 this fall. Check out the resources below for more, and let me know - in a world with Google Now in it, is Apple evolving Siri fast enough?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.