'Hey Siri, why don’t you have an offline mode?'

Smart assistants need to be useful when you're offline

Apple, iPhone, iOS, Siri, AirPods, offline mode
Credit: Apple

The success of semi-smart voice assistants opens the gates to new convenience and new frustration. We use them in the street, on public transport, in the home , office, even the car, but there’s a problem:

Offline mode

The problem is that most voice assistants, including Siri, don’t have offline modes.

That's frustrating for Apple users. It means you can’t use Siri to control your AirPods when you are in AirPlane Mode, won’t get any data when you try to search your Mac, and can’t discreetly ask for directions using your wired earbuds if you find yourself lost with no network connection in a bad part of town.

I think most of us are sufficiently familiar with Murphy’s Law (“If anything bad can happen, it will") to understand that this lack of an offline mode is a problem waiting to happen for most of us.

Siri's fatal flaw is its need to be online in order to function - it needs to speak to the Siri server to engage in the pattern matching and machine intelligence that drive its breed of semi-AI.

We the people

I polled readers on a small website. I asked: “Does Siri need an offline mode?” The response says it all:

88 percent of those who voted said “Yes”.

I think that makes a convincing case that people want and need this.

Apple wouldn’t even need to invest a huge amount in R&D in order to boost Siri with a little offline action – after all, Google already supports offline mode and the company's aged Voice Control (retired post Siri) could already do these things.

I don't think Siri needs to be able to everything it can do online when offline. It makes perfect sense to simply support a limited number of useful features in Siri Offline Mode.

Siri Offline Mode

This limited collection of commands should include the capacity to handle tasks such as:

  • Set an alarm
  • Play/Pause/Forward/Reverse/Mute track/video
  • Show me what albums I have on my iPhone
  • Let me see photos taken in the last week
  • Open [name of app]
  • What is on my Calendar today/tomorrow
  • Open Maps (Maps opens to the last known location)
  • Open contacts, or open specific contact
  • Turn on/off the flashlight
  • Open settings
  • Raise/lower volume
  • Turn on AirPlane mode, Bluetooth, etc.
  • Play my sitting on the subway playlist
  • How many steps have I taken today

None of this is rocket science. Some of these features were provided offline using Apple’s Voice Control. If a dog can learn 250-words, why can’t Siri?

Developers, developers, developers

This could even be an opportunity. Apple could develop a basic offline mode and offer additonal downloadable modules for specific tasks.

Moving one step further, it could perhaps create a limited API that lets allows you to use some third party apps with Siri while offline. I think this might be useful for language translation when travelling, for example.  (Lots of travellers choose to switch off data on their devices when abroad to protect against big bills, after all).

I'm sure this is a challenge that Apple will overcome. It is also quite clear that the reason Siri doesn't have offline mode already is because the focus on the product was always about a network based machine intelligence that helps you get complex tasks done (like making a reservation). The idea was to provide an accessible AI for the rest of us.

However, as the company plots a course to introduce more Siri-controlled products (like AirPods) it seems incredibly important that it puts together an offline mode for Siri.

Google+? If you use social media and happen to be a Google+ user, why not join AppleHolic's Kool Aid Corner community and join the conversation as we pursue the spirit of the New Model Apple?

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when fresh items are published here first on Computerworld.

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Fix Windows 10 problems with these free Microsoft tools
Shop Tech Products at Amazon