And it listens, too. And usually understands.
Even before I left Microsoft, I was never an angry Apple-basher. Any grumbling I did about them was usually motivated by a slightly begrudging envy about how intuitive their products are and how miserably spot-on they were with their "Mac vs. PC" ad campaign, especially when it came to the classic Vista-basher, "Cancel or Allow." While I confess that I’d really get shoe-tossingly frustrated at their ads that tout all the things you can do with an iPhone, because I’ve been doing all of those things and so much more with my Windows-based phones for several years, even that was envy-based. Apple repeatedly "wins" in three key areas: branding, marketing, and usability.
However, their key marketing message around the latest version of the iPod Shuffle is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong.
One of its cool new features is a text-to-speech function that they call VoiceOver. According to their marketing site, VoiceOver is "…the feature that gives iPod shuffle a voice. With the press of a button, it tells you what song is playing and who’s performing it."
Because of this, Apple touts the new Shuffle as "The first music player that talks to you."
But it isn’t. It’s not the first at all.
And I don’t get that – Apple doesn’t need to lie. All they need to do is show some vaguely hip Gen-Z half-slacker smirking at the chrome and rounded corners of whatever they’re selling while the next Feist or Ingrid Michaelson sings plaintively in the background, and they’ll sell more of the next iAnything than there are people on the planet.
I’ve had a long and tumultuous relationship with my Windows Mobile gadgets. I love what they can do, and I find that I actually, if masochistically, enjoy the ridiculous amount of tinkering required to make them do it. On the other hand, I hate what a bad job Microsoft, the hardware manufacturers and the cell carriers have done over the years in giving them useful names and then telling people about them. For example, I currently carry an AT&T Fuze, aka HTC Touch Pro, aka Raphael, aka P4600, aka Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Device.
See what I meant about branding?
In addition to being my phone, my phone is my mini-laptop, my GPS, my ebook, my web browser, my camera, my barcode scanner, my inventory tool, my game system, and my media player – music and video. I use it with headphones or in a cradle wired to the stereo in my car.
Anyway, one of the indispensable components of my Fuze (and of my Tilt, my 8525, my 8125, my MPX220, my SMT5600, and a host of Compaq-then-HP Ipaqs before it) is a Microsoft application called Voice Command. It comes standard with some phones and PDAs these days, but I’ve been using it since it came out as a standalone product.
And, just like VoiceOver, if I want it to,Voice Command will tell me the name of the song that’s playing and who’s performing it. And it’s been doing this, as I said, since 2003.
What’s more, it’ll do this if I simply ask it to by saying "what song is this?" It’ll also play music that I ask for by artist, album, or genre, even genres that I’ve made up: "Play The Beatles," "Play Pet Sounds," "Play 80′s Hair Band Crap That I Wish I Didn’t Actually Own." I can control other functions by voice as well, launching programs, making phone calls, asking it to read my email aloud, tell me the time, etc.
The recognition itself is surprisingly good, though, like all such applications, when it misunderstands, it does so in ways that most humans would not. Humans that have some interest in maintaining a polite and orderly society that is.
A few years ago, just after the film Walk the Line came out, my ever-malleable consumerism sent me on a Johnny Cash kick.
<tangent> It was around this same time that, for a brief period, I had two WinMo devices. One of them was playing music, Johnny Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues." The other one, in my pocket, was making phone calls without my knowledge. It had decided, for some unfathomable reason, to call a friend and colleague of mine who works at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. I’ll call her "Victoria Portway", A) because that name has a certain Jane Austen ring to it and sounds like someone who would work in an important place, and 2) because that’s actually her name. It was only after leaving more than two minutes of me singing at the top of my lungs along with the late Mr. Cash on her voice mail that I realized what had happened. Now, to this day, Vicki insists she never got any such message. At the time, I suspected she was just saying that because we were just good enough friends that she didn’t want to humiliate me. Now, a few years on, I suspect it’s because we’re considerably better friends, and she’s waiting for just the right moment. I live in constant fear. </tangent>
Anyway, in addition to picking up some Cash CD’s, I bought the soundtrack to the film, because I thought Joaquin Phoenix did a pretty credible job with the singing. (This was back when Phoenix himself was somewhat involved in polite and orderly society and not reinventing himself in awkward Letterman moments.) I’d ripped the soundtrack to my media player (my phone, probably the 8125 at that point), and wanted to listen to it next time I was in the car. I keyed the mic and said, clearly, "Play Joaquin Phoenix."
Voice Command confirms your choices with an audible response in a vaguely female voice. In this case, then, "she" said "The Wondermints" and started playing one of their albums.
I tried again. "Play Joaquin Phoenix."
"The Beach Boys" she said, and off she went.
"No", I said, then keyed the mic again. "Play Joaquin Phoenix."
"Fruit Bats", came the response, and the music.
I laughed at that one and dove back in. "Play Joaquin Phoenix."
I thought this was a good sign. "Play Joaquin Phoenix."
"Death Cab for Cutie."
What?!?! "Play Joaquin Phoenix!"
"Play Joaquin Phoenix!"
"The Moody Blues."
"Play Joaquin Phoenix!"
"Apples in Stereo."
"Play Joaquin Phoenix!"
"The Flaming Lips."
At this point, I started to lose it a little, wondering just when the passive-aggressive little woman who lives in my phone had started to hate me.
"For the love of all that is holy, PLAY JOAQUIN PHOENIX!"
"The Carpenters." (Yeah, I know, shut up.)
I could have given up. I could have simply said "Play Walk the Line – Soundtrack" and gotten the music I’d asked for. Instead, I thought it might be helpful to start giving Mr. Phoenix middle names.
"Play Joaquin ***ing PHOENIX!!!"
"Fountains of Wayne."
I tried other additions, profane and scatalogical, to no avail. She kept coming back with seemingly senseless choices, delivered with icy digital patience. She listed artists that I didn’t even know I had. At one point, she launched a game of Solitaire, which I read as her playing HAL9000 to my Dave Bowman and suggesting that I "…take a stress pill."
I thought about throwing the phone out the window. I thought about just unplugging it and listening to the radio. I thought about pulling over and having a good cry.
Then it hit me. (Not literally, though I wouldn’t have been surprised.)
I’d been pronouncing the name properly. "Wah-keen Fee-nix."
What if … what if I said it wrong?
I took a deep breath, and, as clearly as I could, said "Play Joe-Ackin Puh-Ho-nix."
I’ll swear to my dying day that I heard her smiling as she said, perfectly clearly, "Joaquin Phoenix."
I tried it a dozen times to be sure, and it was conclusive: she knows how to say it, she just doesn’t understand it when she hears it.
They say the biggest challenge in any relationship is communication, and that was a watershed day for us.
So, Apple, there you have it. My music player talks to me, and it was doing that 6 years before yours.
And it listens.
And, sometimes, just once in a while, it drives me into fits of screaming apoplexy.
Let’s see your fancy new Shuffle do that.
Thanks to David @ FuzeMobility for the post that brought this to my attention: http://www.fuzemobility.com/the-future-ipod%E2%80%A6today-no-ipod-needed/ And for his closing sentence in that piece that I so desperately wish I’d come up with first: "Voice Command has been out a few years now and comes standard on the Fuze so it’s nice to see that Apple finally invented it."