Why Is Siri Still In ‘Beta’?

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Apple’s Siri personal assistant has been in development for 10 years.

Apple doesn’t let app developers use the word “beta” for iPhone apps.

And the company spends millions on — and make billions from — the advertising of their “beta” product specifically.

Given these facts, is it disingenuous, unfair, inconsistent, hypocritical and inaccurate for Apple to continue calling Siri “beta”?

IBM invented the “beta” designation for software in the 1950s. IBM was very clear about what “beta” meant.

“Alpha” was used by IBM to refer to software that had not been announced; “beta” was for software that had been announced, but not shipped.

A “beta test” referred to the release of software to a few selected customers to find out if the software was ready for sale.

Nowadays, the “beta” label has come to mean whatever companies want it to mean.

There is no independent review board or legal criteria (although it can be used for legal protection).

Normally, companies make the decision based on whether they feel they need to lower expectations and shield themselves from criticism on the one hand, or promote healthy sales on the other.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t have to make that calculation. Siri is a feature, not a product. So there’s no downside for them to hide behind the “beta” label for Siri.

Yes, Apple has the “right” to put a “beta” label on anything they want. If developers, partners or users don’t like it, they can go buy buy an Android phone.

But before you write off the Siri “beta” issue as another annoying tech writer making a big deal over nothing, consider the following three facts:

1. Apple bans “beta” apps from the App Store

Apple explicitly bans apps in the App Store that are labeled as “beta.” (Refer to App Store Review Guidelines #2.9: “Apps that are ‘beta’, ‘demo’, ‘trial’, or ‘test’ versions will be rejected.”)

If you’re an app developer and want to do what Apple did  — release something with the “beta” label — Apple will reject your app. We’re not supposed to reject their use of “beta,” but they will reject yours.

Knowing Apple’s policy, a few app makers will delay their app until it’s out of what they consider “beta.” But in most cases, I suspect, developers simply release their “beta” software and don’t call it “beta.”

Apple grants itself that blanket protection from criticism (and class-action lawsuits), but denies it to their app developer community.

Anyone who believes that Apple’s use of the “beta” label for Siri is “no big deal” should object to Apple’s ban on the label for app developers.

Anyone who supports the ban on “beta” labels for app developers should object to Apple’s use of the “beta” for Siri.

2. Apple uses Siri to make billions of dollars. 

Apple uses Siri in certain high-budget, prime-time TV ads to pitch the iPhone, thereby using Siri commercially to make billions of dollars — yet Apple still hides behind the “beta” label for Siri.

In fact, Apple even hired some of the biggest (and most expensive) stars in Hollywood – John MalkovichMartin ScorseseSamuel L Jackson and Zooey Deschanel – to advertise Siri in prime time. (Siri is the only feature advertised in these spots.)

A New York man named Frank Fazio sued Apple, claiming their TV commercials for Siri constitute a “misleading and deceptive message.”

Many have criticized the lawsuit, saying that if he doesn’t like the product, he shouldn’t buy it. But in fact Fazio didn’t sue Apple because Siri was flawed. He sued Apple because they appeared to claim in TV commercials that Siri did things that in real life it couldn’t do.

The lawsuit was invalid. Apple’s Siri advertising didn’t show capabilities that Siri cannot do. The ads were not “false advertising.”

But it’s also true that Apple’s defense was equally invalid, in my opinion. Apple’s main defense against Fazio’s lawsuit was that Siri is “beta” and, even though they were spending millions and making billions advertising Siri specifically (and in several ads exclusively), it’s just in a test phase and therefore any expectations of quality are invalid.

The judge accepted this defense and the suit was dismissed.

What, exactly, is the legal definition of “beta”? How can a court of law can accept a defense based on the “beta” status of a product when the word has no legal definition — it doesn’t even have a standard definition outside the courts.

This is an unprecedented situation in the history of any product ever, as far as I know.

Here you have a company that spends millions of dollars to make TV commercials that focus 100% on the benefits of a single feature — presumably using that feature to convince thousands or millions of people to buy iPhones — then claiming that the feature advertised isn’t finished and therefore users shouldn’t have high expectations for it.

Can you think of another “beta” product or feature advertised on prime-time TV?

On the one hand, you shouldn’t be able to successfully sue a company because a “beta” feature is “beta” and therefore isn’t finished. On the other hand, you shouldn’t spend millions of dollars to advertise a feature in prime time if that feature is “beta” and isn’t finished.

3. Siri has been in development for ten years. 

Siri has been a work in progress for many years. The technology was originally developed for the Pentagon starting in May, 2003.

Researchers from that project spun it out as a private app-based technology six years ago.

Siri had been a great app in the iOS App Store for quite a while before Apple acquired the company three years ago.

It was official rolled out as a feature of the iPhone on October 4, 2011 — nearly a year and a half.

Depending on when you start counting, Siri is 10, 6, 3 or 1.4 years old. How long is this “beta” test going to last?

In a nutshell, I think it’s disingenuous, unfair, inconsistent, hypocritical and inaccurate for Apple to continue to call Siri “beta.”

Oh, and by the way: If you disagree with this column in any way, don’t criticize it. The column is still in “beta.”

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Why Is Siri Still In ‘Beta’?