Matt Reed holds up his new iPhone 4S and speaks to Siri, the voice recognition software recently introduced by Apple (AAPL). “Could you pour me a beer, please?” he asks. Moments later, a miniature, remote-controlled car with a can of Dale’s Pale Ale strapped to the grille zooms across a conference room table and into a spike, puncturing the can. Beer spills down a funnel and into a pint glass. Reed takes a gulp.
The digital beer order—staged and filmed by ad agency Redpepper on Oct. 20 and posted to the Web—probably wasn’t what Apple had in mind when it dubbed Siri a virtual personal assistant. With a few spoken words, the artificial-intelligence feature helps iPhone users schedule appointments, write text messages, and check the local weather. Apple hasn’t offered its thousands of outside developers any tools to adapt Siri technology for their own apps. But that hasn’t stopped tinkerers from finding workarounds and turning Siri into everything from a bartender to a bank teller to a fun way to send a tweet. “Being able to talk to a computer has been a dream for a while,” says C.C. Laan, an iPhone developer at Laan Labs who rigged a system for unlocking his apartment door by saying to Siri, “Tell door to open.”
Hacking Siri doesn’t require breaking Apple’s rules or diving deep into its source code. Apple designed Siri to be able to send SMS messages, and a lot of apps can understand those texts and act on them. (For instance, telling Siri to “Text Bank of America (BAC) saying BAL” will send a message to one of the bank’s servers, which responds with your account balance.) The app Remember the Milk, a mobile to-do list, goes further: If you set its calendar as the default calendar in your iPhone settings, Siri commands such as “Remind me to pay the phone bill” will create new to-do items directly in Remember the Milk.
Developers hope Apple will release an API, or application programming interface, to bring a much wider range of Siri controls into their apps. “A sign you need an API is that people are doing things to work around you,” says Oren Michels, chief executive officer of Mashery, which helps companies manage relationships with outside developers. Earlier this year, Microsoft (MSFT) began giving software makers tools to build apps for its Kinect video game console after hackers had, without the manufacturer’s consent, repurposed the machine for use in business, medicine, and pornography.
Apple shipped the first iPhone in 2007 with limited support for third-party apps; then-CEO Steve Jobs initially resisted their inclusion, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. Only after creative coders broke into the smartphone and began distributing their own programs did Apple announce the App Store, in 2008. Omar Kilani, the co-founder of Remember the Milk, suggests that creating a Siri API won’t be straightforward. It’s “actually a very hard problem for Apple to solve,” he says. “What happens when multiple third-party apps want to act on the same action words?” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment on plans for Siri.
Potentially, Siri could make interacting with any of the 500,000 titles in the App Store faster and more fun. “Rather than having to open a phone, search for something, and get into an app, you’re potentially saying to Siri, ‘Hey, I’m bored, tell me what to do nearby,’ ” says Jonathan Barouch, founder and CEO of location-based social app Roamz. His company, as well as Foursquare, Pinger, Loopt, and other makers of popular apps say they are holding off on creating Siri workarounds. “It doesn’t make sense to go in the back door,” says Barouch. “When it’s open, we’ll wrap our arms around it.”
Still, in an industry created by coders with a do-it-yourself ethos, few things are cooler these days than an impressive Siri hack. During a recent hourlong meeting at Asana, a San Francisco maker of online productivity software, staffers took turns sharing the progress they had made toward the company’s upcoming software launch. One engineer, Tim Bavaro, started his show-and-tell by talking into his iPhone: “Tell Asana ‘This better work.’ ” Presto! A new task appeared in the productivity app. Applause.