Bye bye secretaries, hello Siri: Apple’s plan for the virtual PA

A peppy crowd poured into the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco on September 9. They had turned up at the venue, which usually hosts rock concerts, to watch a show by Apple, a firm with a cult following of its own. Executives took the stage to unveil updates to the Apple Watch, iPhone and iPad, as well as a new television set-top box, which makes it easier to find TV shows and play games.

The real star of the show, however, was Siri, Apple’s personal-assistant technology. Siri, which is already available on iPhones, responds to voice commands and will be embedded in Apple’s new TV remote controls, so users will not have to lift a finger to change channel or find new shows. If users want to know the weather or the results of a sporting event they can ask Siri, and be met with a rapid reply.

Siri’s migration to television exemplifies the rise of virtual-assistant software that mimics some skills of human secretaries: creating reminders for appointments, looking up information and completing other tasks. Apple, which bought Siri in 2010 for an estimated $200 million, has been a leader in this area, but many tech firms have been working on rival products.

Google and Microsoft offer digital assistants on smartphones, called Google Now and Cortana, respectively, which have deep knowledge of their users’ habits and schedules. Amazon sells a stand-alone device that, among other things, plays music, reads books aloud and can help buy items through Amazon. On September 8 Baidu, a Chinese internet giant, announced its own digital agent, Duer. And recently Facebook announced that a concierge service, called M, would be available through its messaging app.

The rise of Siri et al signals two important trends that will shape the future of the consumer internet: the evolution of “search”, away from typed search-engine queries towards a more personalised, interactive service, and a gradual shift from individual apps to an ecosystem of services that is mediated by a powerful software assistant.


According to research firm Gartner, about 38 per cent of American consumers have used virtual-assistant services on their smartphones recently; by the end of 2016 an estimated two-thirds of consumers in developed markets will use them daily. Software robots are getting better at predicting what users need based on past behaviour and current location.

The virtual secretaries offered by a variety of tech giants form part of their wider efforts to master artificial intelligence and, in particular, “machine learning” – teaching computers to crunch vast amounts of data, recognise patterns and get better at what they do. Firms are spending billions of dollars buying start-ups in this area, and are rushing to hire specialists in artificial intelligence. Apple alone is reportedly looking to hire about 90 experts, and Facebook has hired a star artificial-intelligence academic, Yann LeCun, to head its research centre on the subject.

Voice recognition is quickly improving, although it remains imperfect. Two years ago Google Now used to misinterpret around 25 per cent of words spoken, but today it only misses 8 per cent, according to Aparna Chennapragada, who oversees the product. Firms’ big focus has become how to use the information consumers store on their devices to make proactive recommendations instead of just responding to requests.

Google is especially good/creepy at this. For example, it goes through users’ emails to prompt them about when to leave for appointments or flights. Microsoft’s Cortana does this too but until recently it has been limited to Windows devices. Global-positioning technology, already a standard feature on smartphones, is helping virtual assistants to do their job better. If a consumer wants to be reminded to buy milk when he next goes to the supermarket, an alert will flash when the phone detects that he has arrived.

Technology is also making it possible to automate the headache of arranging meetings. A few start-ups, including Clara Labs and, offer virtual scheduling assistants that employ a combination of algorithms and humans to help set up appointments. Subscribers copy in the software robot on e-mails; it scans their calendars and chooses a convenient slot on their behalf. On average it takes humans around seven e-mails to set up a meeting, so virtual assistants can save lots of time.


Most real-life personal assistants do not need to worry about their jobs being threatened by technology – at least not yet. Digital assistants struggle to complete actions that require more complex steps, such as booking flights. Your correspondent spent several days “employing” a variety of available digital assistants. Although they can find nearby restaurants and make a booking through OpenTable, they do not yet know her well enough or have the judgment to tell her which is the “best” Italian food. Echo, Amazon’s product, had no idea how to respond when your correspondent asked whether Echo was her personal assistant.

To please their masters, virtual assistants will need to do better at connecting to outside services to fulfil requests. Cortana links to Uber, for example, to help its users book cars, and recently started to show them relevant coupons when they go to shops or browse online.

The rise of virtual assistants poses several challenges. One is privacy. The best services will have access to troves of data, but how consumers’ information will be shared with outside firms that fulfil requests has yet to be ironed out. Unlike human secretaries who work for one person or firm, virtual assistants have divided loyalties. For example, Google Now and Facebook M may work on behalf of consumers, but their parent companies make money by selling targeted ads and mining consumer data. Apple, in contrast, has made privacy one of its main selling-points.

A similar dilemma is raised when it comes to commerce. As virtual assistants help purchase more things online, they will have the power to boost certain firms and deprive others of business. When asked to book a ticket from San Francisco to London, will a virtual assistant select the cheapest fare, or a ticket on an airline that has a promotional relationship with the company that invented the assistant? As virtual secretaries become more powerful, the question of who works for whom will become more pressing.

by Economist

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Why the iPad Pro could be good for Microsoft

Apple’s new iPad – though not expected to sell like crazy – could lift the entire market for large, touchscreen tablets, boosting the fortunes of Microsoft, Dell and several other hardware makers.

Going on sale in November, the iPad Pro comes with features and accessories designed to make it more suitable as a work machine than the first nine iPad models. Its screen size is just a centimetre less than the MacBook Pro’s 13-inch display, and it weighs half as much as the laptop. It supports running multiple apps at once and works well with speedy Internet connections.

In fact, in introducing the iPad Pro at an event in San Francisco on Thursday, Apple stated that the processor and display on the iPad Pro were superior to many popular laptops. Most demos focused on using the iPad Pro to create, edit and calculate, a stark leap from five years ago when then-Apple chief executive Steve Jobs introduced the iPad as a thing to read, watch and listen.

Hardware analysts say the new capabilities along with a stylus and keyboards sold separately should instantly make the iPad Pro attractive to workers in health care, construction and other industries. They could find the new device more tenable to work on than a big-screened smartphone and less clunky to lug around than small laptops.

But because many companies remain tethered to programs that work only on Microsoft Windows, corporate equipment purchasers aren’t likely to jump for the $US799 iPad Pro let alone the $US1079 high-end option with a cellular chip.

Apple is closing that gap by having vendors such as IBM, Cisco, Adobe and even Microsoft make their technology work well with iPhones, iPads and Macs. The recently announced deal with Cisco, for instance, means iPhone users will enjoy higher-quality video chats than Android users when in offices powered by Cisco networking equipment.

The deals are significant, but not enough for the iPad Pro to become the device of choice inside businesses, said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at consulting firm Forrester Research.

“Companies have invested lots of money into legacy software not available or not effective in iOS,” he said, referring to the iPad’s operating system. “That’s going to make it very challenging to move your workforce to the new device.”

What the new iPad does do is give credibility to more laptop-like tablets, said Jean Philippe Bouchard, research director for tablets at IDC.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro line of big tablets, first unveiled three years ago, only recently started to catch on. Now, as people buzz about the iPad Pro and possibly buy one and bring it to work, more corporate technology managers could be forced to give the Surface or newly announced competitors from Dell, Toshiba and Lenovo a second look, analysts said.

Dell’s decision this week to sell and provide technical support for the Surface Pro 3 to businesses “will further turbocharge the energy” around the iPad Pro’s Windows-based rivals, Gownder said.

That momentum is why IDC estimates shipments for larger, so-called two-in-one tablets will expand by 80 percent in the U.S. next year, while purchasing of traditional, smaller tablets drops 11 percent.

The iPad Pro is “a refresh for my old iPad and a refresh for my laptop,” Bouchard said. “It might be a way to not get both.”


By: Paresh Dave
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Apple iPhone 6S first review: 3D Touch a gamechanger

When I picked up an iPhone 6S today, my first thought was: “what’s the fuss. It looks much the same as last year’s model.” But then Apple’s new marketing slogan rang in my ear: “The only things that’s changed is everything.”

I’m not partial to marketing slogans, but I did discover that iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus were different animals when I started playing with them.

And the overwhelming reason is Apple’s signature new feature, 3D Touch — an iPhone adaptation of the Force Touch feature found on the MacBook and Apple Watch.

You still can press your finger on the display as you normally would with the same result as before. But when you press harder than normal and sustain that press for a few moments, magic happens.

In the case of an email, you get to read the email without needing to flick right as you normally would. Once you take your finger off the display, it magically returns to your email list as if nothing has happened. So there’s no need for the extra tap at the top of the screen to close the email you viewed.

But there is another course of action. If instead of disengaging your finger, you press even harder, you effectively “lock” the screen you have just been viewing. So if I want to fixate on one particular email, I first hard press it to open it, and then press even harder to lock it into place. There is no need to swipe at all.

This procedure worked for other apps. When I tried the messages app, for example, I could press on the hyperlink in a message and the web page that was linked to would display in Safari. If I then let go, it would disappear.

So with 3D Touch, a strong press lets you temporarily access something that’s referenced in the email, message or whatever you are looking at, and letting go ends that access. Again, you have the option of pressing harder to lock the web page into place.

Its not only websites that open this way. Should the message instead have a date or time, a hard press will open the calendar. Should it be a recognised flight number, you’ll get an app that shows the detail of your flight.

The net effect of 3D touch is that we’ll soon be doing less swiping and more pressing, which I found more efficient.

Hardware wise, iPhone 6S and 6S Plus bring some changes. There’s now a rose gold colour, so the overall choices are rose gold, silver, gold and space grey.

Apple also has changed the aluminium alloy mix of this phone to what is called 7000 series aluminium, which Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller said was an alloy used in the aerospace industry. Display sizes are 4.7-inches for the 6S ad 5.5-inches for the 6S Plus as before.

The cameras have been upgraded to 12 and 5 megapixels for the back and front facing cameras instead of 8 and 1.2Mp. In my try out, selfies looked sharp and tones were well defined, thanks to the better resolution and a new flash feature where the whole screen lights ups when you take the selfie. Your screen becomes a makeshift flash unit.

The 6S range also can shoot 4K video, but the iPhone doesn’t have a screen that shows that fine resolution. So you’ll have to play that 4K video on another device — such as a 4K TV — to enjoy the full 4K experience.

The new iPhones have Apple’s A9 processor that it says has a 70 per cent faster processor and 90 per cent faster graphics. We’re yet to really test if this is the case. The always-on M9 motion processor that measures activity is now built on the same chip as the A9.

Apple also claims that fingerprint recognition is much faster due to a new Touch-ID sensor.

The other part of my tryout involved live photos. Whenever you snap a photo, Apple will quietly take 3 seconds of video: 1.5 seconds before the event and 1.5 seconds after it. This step suggests that the camera is actually quietly taking video in anticipation of you pressing the shutter to get the “before the event” vision.

You get to see a tiny bit of this video effect as you flick through photos in the Photos app. On the other hand, if you “3D touch” the photo — i.e. press down hard — you see the entire 3 seconds.

It work fine, but personally I don’t need live photos. Others I’m sure will disagree.

In the US, Apple has announced an iPhone upgrade program where users can pay a monthly fee and receive a new iPhone annually, but Apple Australia says there is no current plan to bring the iPhone Upgrade Program to Australia.

The new iPhones will cost the same as last year’s models in the US, but due to the declining Australian dollar, the price downunder is rising. In fact none of the new iPhones are under $A1000.

The iPhone 6S will cost $1,079 for the 16GB model, $1,229 for the 64GB model and A$1,379 for the 128GB model. The respective costs for iPhone 6S are $1,229, $1,379 and $1,529. So iPhone is getting expensive in Australia.

Apple usually hedges its prices based on what the exchange rate is now and how this might change so that it can keep a consistent retail price through to the next model’s release. Sometimes it alters a price midway through a model’s life, but usually not.

Preorders begin in Australia on Saturday with handsets available from September 25.

In some ways the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus aren’t a huge departure from last year’s models, but 3D Touch, quick actions, higher resolution cameras, the selfies flash mode and live photos offer an improved user experience.

Chris Griffith travelled to San Francisco courtesy of Apple.


By Chris Griffith, Senior Technology Journalist, Sydney
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New domain extensions, incl .SOCCER, .MEN

There are a whole heap of new web domains just launched. There’s not the space to explain them all here, so a list will have to do.

These domains are:

• .BZH
• .ONE
• .DOG
• .NYC
• .RUN
• .MEN
• .LOL

Australians likely to register directly under .au

You’ve probably heard the news – that it’s likely in the near future Australians will be able to register domain names directly under .au. (eg instead of, they can use
You can read more about the change here

This is potentially a huge shift in the Australian namespace and there are strong opinions are forming both for and against.

Proponents of the change include the following arguments:

  • It opens up millions of new opportunities for would-be registrants. As there are over 3m registrations in and, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to acquire a short, meaningful domain for their venture.
  • It’s been successful overseas (.uk and .nz have been released in recent years) as people take up the chance to use a shorter, arguably more memorable domain.
  • Should individuals be allowed to register these domains (as opposed to restricting to ABN holders as is currently the case), it means bloggers, micro-businesses etc have a viable Australian option other than the much-derided
  • It’s an Australian-focussed defence to the impact of the new gTLDs that have entered the market. Instead of businesses drifting over to .web, .xyz etc, this is an option for them to retain their Australian identity.

Those in opposition make the following points:

  • It adds a level of confusion for Australians looking for businesses online. Do they look for the, the or the .au.
  • Many businesses will feel forced into ‘defensive registrations’ to protect their brand. It will cost them money but the domain will never be actively used.
  • Domainers and those with a legitimate investment in domain names may see the value of their portfolios eroded due to the sudden increase in supply.
  • Some people feel there are plenty of viable options within and and that businesses just need to consider buying existing domains rather than only considering domains available for free registration. After all, if people only ever bought brand new houses, and 1/3rd of them were sitting empty, then no doubt there would be a sever housing shortage.