Tech Files outtakes: Apple’s new openness has its limits

As I mentioned in today’s column, one of the best things about iOS 8, Apple’s newly updated operating system for iPhones and iPads, is the degree to which Apple has opened the software up to users and app makers.

But Apple’s newfound openness is nowhere near complete.

There are two big areas in iOS where Apple has maintained its tight-fisted control: Siri and the default apps that come with the software.

When Apple launched its Siri feature with the iPhone 4s three years ago, it could only do a handful of things, such as make phone calls and play music. Since then, Apple has gradually added new features to its intelligent assistant. Today, Siri can look up sports scores, make restaurant reservations and launch applications. With the iOS 8 update, iPhone and iPad owners can use Siri to identify a song playing on the radio and can activate Siri by just saying, “Hey, Siri,” if their device is plugged into a power source.

Many of these newer features are tied into apps and services offered by other companies. Siri uses Open Table to make reservations, Shazam to identify songs and Yahoo to get sports scores and schedules. But those ties were made by Apple itself. The average app developer has no access to Siri. And iPhone and iPad owners can’t get Siri to do anything other than what Apple has pre-programmed it to do.

That’s because Apple has not yet opened up Siri to outside developers. Because of that limitation, when out on a run, you can’t simply ask Siri how far you’ve gone; instead, you have to unlock your phone and open up whatever app you’re using to track your jaunt.

Similarly, you can’t ask Siri how much Home Depot charges for a particular kind of drill; instead, you’d have to open up Home Depot’s app or open up the Safari Web browser.

Apple’s decision to keep Siri closed is unfortunate, in part because it undermines the technology’s potential. Siri and services like it have the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with our mobile devices and other computers, allowing us to glean wide ranges of information by simply talking to them in a natural way.

It’s also unfortunate, because Apple’s rivals are taking a different tack. Microsoft and Google are now starting to open up access to their own intelligent assistants, Cortana and Google Now, respectively, to outside developers.

But Siri isn’t the only example of Apple retaining tight control over parts of iOS. It’s also decided to keep a lock on the operating system’s default applications.

If you click on an address in an email or text message, iOS will always launch Apple’s own Maps application. Generally, if you click on a Web address, iOS will take you to Safari, Apple’s own Web browser. If you tap on a phone number, iOS will launch its built-in phone application.

Many consumers might like the option of changing those defaults. They might want, for example, to have Chrome be their default browser, instead of Safari, or Google Maps to be their default mapping application, not Apple Maps. For my part, I’d love to designate Google Voice as my default phone program.

But Apple’s not allowing that. In iOS 8, just as in previous versions of the software, you’re stuck with whatever default programs Apple designates.

And the situation is actually worse than that, because Apple also bars users from deleting any of the pre-installed apps. You may not ever use its Newsstand or Passbook applications, but you’re stuck with them anyway.

Those legacy limitations stand in contrast to the new openness Apple embraced in iOS 8. Users can now pick their own keyboards, use widgets designed by third-party application makers and choose which apps to use to share pictures or videos from the Photo app.

Here’s hoping Apple realizes the benefits of that openness and extends it to Siri and default apps.

Photo, of Apple’s iPhone 5s running iOS 8, courtesy of Apple.

 

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  • Henry 3 Dogg

    “Apple’s new openness has its limits …”

    OK, Let me get this straight. You’re the buy who was complaining this morning about Apple opening up use of TouchID, when what you actually meant was that if you give a user access to your login, he can use it.

    Oh, well. Lets take a look at this one.

    Apparently if I ask Siri to book a table it will use OpenTable, which, basically, can book be a table in pretty much any restaurant that takes online bookings.

    Whereas if I use an Android device, then depending on the manufacturer of the device, I may or may not have a choice of which booking system to use, but the information of where I am and what I’m looking for must be passed through Google’s location services, which will sell my information to help Google’s advertisers competitively bombard me with advertisements, and then I can use whatever booking system the device builder allows to book me a table at any restaurant that buys advertising space from Google.

    Gee. Isn’t Google great.

 
 
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