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The future of Apple starts with 'Hey Siri'

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"Hey Siri."

It was a cutesy tag line for the Apple event invitation. The company even pre-loaded its digital assistant with canned answers to questions about what the company was going to unveil. But by the end of the never-ending shindig it became abundantly clear that Siri has become an important part of the entire Apple ecosystem. It's the UI that begs not to be touched and Apple is going all in with Apple TV, iOS 9, HomeKit and iPhone 6s. But will users stop tapping and start talking?

"Voice has the power to cut through all that noise of platforms and services to get to quickly what you want. Who loves hunting and pecking a multi-tiered menu?" Jared Benson, co-founder and executive creative director of interface design company Punchcut, told Engadget. Benson would know; he's worked with Toyota on implementing a next-generation voice-activated system and partnered with "a major technology company" on voice control home automation. While we've come to expect devices like new cars to support voice controls, for many the first time they interacted with a system like this was with Siri.

Siri made its debut at an iPhone event in 2011. The digital assistant answered questions about the weather and sports, gave directions and queried Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha. If you weren't embarrassed to talk to your phone in public and it understood what you were saying, it was sort of useful. It ended up being more of a party trick seeing if Siri could answer a question or unravel your localized accent than a feature people actually used.

Siri did get better over the years at understanding folks while adding a few more tasks it could handle. But it was still relegated to primarily answering questions and giving you directions. Then HomeKit appeared.

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Apple's answer to the IoT fragmentation mess relies heavily on Siri to make your home easier to manage. Any device that supports HomeKit can be controlled via the virtual assistant. Plus, in your house you're less likely to feel self-conscious talking to your phone. It also helps that the iPhone 6s supports voice activation of Siri without it being plugged in. Just say, "Hey Siri," to launch and you can start turning lights on and off from across the room.

For any developers wanting to be part of HomeKit or CarPlay, Siri is now an incredibly important platform. Both of those systems are almost entirely run by voice commands. While the Siri integration on tvOS is currently limited to partners like Hulu, Netflix and HBO, there's the potential for developers to create new and interesting ways for users to interact with apps that include voice. If you're a developer, you should be thinking about Siri as a platform, because your competitors are.

CarPlay vehicles are making their way to showrooms and you can finally buy HomeKit devices. But it's been slow going and it'll be a while before a lot of people are driving those cars and using Apple's system in their homes. For now, the company went ahead and launched its own voice-powered in-home device: the new Apple TV.

Like the Amazon Fire TV, you access the new Apple TV's voice feature via the remote. Just press and hold the mic button to enable Siri and tell it what you want to watch. It's the end of using the remote to navigate the onscreen keyboard. But it's about more than just searching Netflix; ask, "What did he say?" and Siri will back up and replay the last 10 seconds with closed captioning on. It's like having a friend sitting next to you (one that isn't completely useless).

Nuance has spent the past 10 years enabling voice control in devices. Recently it's noticed that its fastest-growing segment is the TV. "Using text on your TV is painful," said Mike Thompson, executive vice president of Nuance's mobile division. He notes that it's much easier to say, "Movies by Harrison Ford," than to try to type into the horrible onscreen keyboard.

As for a world controlled by your voice, it's already here according to Thompson: "I think that's upon us now actually. The phenomenon of voice-enabled capabilities and accuracy and its usefulness has crossed the threshold of mainstream popularity."

Apple isn't breaking any new ground with Siri. All the companies in this space are feeding off each other. After Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that apps are the future of TV, a representative from Amazon told Engadget, "We've thought that apps and voice are the future of TV since we launched Amazon Fire TV 16 months ago. We're flattered that Apple agrees with us."

Still when people think voice-controlled assistant, they think Siri. That marketing gives Apple a leg up and helps train users. It also pushes other companies, according to Punchcut's Benson. "I certainly think Apple has done a really good job bringing people up to a certain standard," he said. "Once Apple has come out with a technology, that sets the bar for others."

And voice isn't going away. Nuance told Engadget that its mobile cloud service processed 4.07 billion voice transactions in Q2 2015. That's a roughly 49 percent increase from the 2.74 billion transactions during the same period in 2014.

So get ready for a future where you're spending more time talking to Siri. Apple's actual voice-assistant roadmap (in typical Apple fashion) is a bit of a mystery. But in the home, expect the voice assistant to take on an increasingly larger role as HomeKit and the Apple TV evolve and gain traction. CarPlay vehicles will become increasingly available to new car buyers and the iPhone will still tell you what the weather is outside.

Your voice is the new user interface and Apple is building a platform just to hear what you have to say. It was a cute tag line for an invitation, but the future of Apple could very well be distilled to the two words that will be uttered by the owners of almost all future Apple products: "Hey Siri."

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