Siri OS: Could natural language be Apple's next big leap forward?

Another idea we've been talking around a lot, both in articles and on the iMore show and the Iterate podcast, is the future of Apple's virtual personal assistant, Siri and what it means for current graphical user interfaces. While working on the iOS 6 Siri previews, however, it began to coalesce. Watching the WWDC 2012 keynote, Apple senior vice president of iOS, Scott Forstall showed off the updates planned for Siri in iOS 6, and used an interesting turn of phrase -- "you can even tap to watch the trailer right here in Siri".

Not "using Siri". Not "with Siri". "In Siri."

Siri has never been part of the original iOS Home page system, Spring Board. It's always been a layer unto itself. Siri even includes a robust system of widgets, including alarms and timers, messaging and email, Facebook and Twitter, maps and locations, and info sheets including restaurants, sports, movies, and more. Unlike Android, you can't pin any of them persistently to the Home screen. They exist only in Siri.

It's a parallel interface layer that uses natural language -- voice -- instead of multitouch -- gestures. Right now it's an extremely limited, not always reliable one, but it is one. With iOS 6, it can even launch apps, just like the Home screen's Spring Board.

It's not hard to imagine Siri continuing to improve and expand until it can do pretty much everything the Home screen, Spring Board system can do, only with voice rather than multitouch gestures.

All major revolutions in computing have been as a result of the mainstreaming of a new and more accessible interface paradigm. The Apple II popularized command-line interfaces (CLI). The Mac popularized graphical user interfaces (GUI). The iPhone popularized multitouch user interfaces. Even the iPod's success could arguably be tied, at least in part, to the advent of the clickwheel as interface.

Could Siri popularize natural language user interfaces? Could the next big shift, and the next huge adaption curve in the mainstream market come when Siri is ready for prime time? Could natural language interface do to multitouch and GUI what multitouch and GUI did to the command-line?

As much as Minority Report teased us with multitouch before Apple put it into hundreds of millions of hands, natural language has been teased even longer. Star Trek had "Computer". 2001 had "HAL". Knight Rider had "KITT". And on and on. Collectively, we've had hundreds if not thousands of science fiction stories promising a future filled with machines that we could not only talk to, but that we could talk with. It's the only step left before Mitchel Gant, Firefox, and having to think in Russian...

Google's reaching for this future as well. Google Now tries to do what Siri does and even more. Siri parses queries and tries to understand context. Google Now tries to predict context before you even query it. Palm talked about this for webOS years ago -- your phone knows where you are, what time your appointment is, and what traffic is like, so why should you have to carry that cognitive load? Why can't your phone realize you'll be late, alert you, provide alternate directions, and email your contact to let them know you're running late? Palm never delivered on that dream, but Google Now is starting too.

Again, it's not hard to imagine Apple will implement similar features into Siri, since the iPhone and Apple's new Maps system, among other things, can provide similar information.

And, as Apple tried to prove at the wrong time, in the wrong way, with the wrong device -- the buttonless iPod shuffle -- when natural language is the interface, the size of the screen, even the existence of a screen, stops mattering. Computers can become tiny, wearable, embeddable, invisible.

The migration from CLI to GUI to multitouch has all been driven by the urge to democratize computing. (The more people who can use computers, the more people you can sell computers to.)

When natural language becomes easier to use than multitouch, and mainstream users start using them more, we just might see the next great transition in interface, and the next great expansion in computer user base.

And Apple will have spent years position Siri to be there.

Apple II. Mac. iPhone. Siri.