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Senior Correspondent

I’ve always been a smartphone skeptic — I’d give up all the cameras, streaming movies and GPS maps for a cellphone with better call quality so that calls are clear and reliable. But Apple’s iPhone 4S has my attention. If the smartphone has always been more computer than telephone, the one feature that could surmount poor voice quality is a change in the way we interact with the device. The voice recognition technology called Siri may be just be that kind of game-changer. I’m interested in it as a harbinger of changes to come throughout the mobile device market.

By now you’ve seen the television ads that show people giving voice commands in natural speech to get their phones to do things. In an era when text messages are becoming a standard way to communicate, it’s great to see a device that lets you send text or email messages by voice alone, a technology that not only understands and transcribes the message you’re sending, but reports back to you in speech to tell you what it has done. Changing appointments or setting reminders can likewise be done on the fly and in a conversational tone.

Apple calls Siri a ‘beta’ product, meaning it’s still having the bugs shaken out of it, but this is one impressive product already, and I think its ramifications for Apple are potentially huge. That’s because when you integrate voice with search, the Web’s biggest driver, you simplify the operation and can drive traffic to the sites of your choice. Google is taking note of Siri because while Siri will use Google to mine for information, it does so as its last — not its first — choice. Ask Siri about a store in your area and it will use Yelp, a site where people leave their own reviews about businesses. You can ask Siri to do a math problem and it will go not to Google but to Wolfram Alpha, the site specifically designed to be more of a database than a search engine.

Using voice fundamentally changes the nature of the search experience. A standard search engine like Google or Bing requires you to enter words and phrases into a search field, and the quality of the results depends upon your knowledge of how to enter those terms. Working with Siri is more like talking with a voice-enabled almanac. Instead of a list of hundreds of Web pages ranked by relevance, you get an answer based not only upon your question but on the context in which you ask it. Because it can tap into the various apps on the smartphone, Siri knows where you are and is smart enough to figure out what you’re trying to do. Now imagine Apple continually adding services to make Siri smarter and ponder the ramifications for the big search companies.

Apple did not invent voice recognition technology, and in fact Google had incorporated voice functionality in its Android operating system before Siri became a factor. But Siri stands out because of Apple’s emphasis on natural language, and while Siri will tap into Google (or Yahoo, or Bing) depending on what you ask it to do, the option of tying the product to a wide range of search partners makes Apple’s technology compelling. This is artificial intelligence that finally works in a consumer product, and as the product matures, it’s going to get better. Google will doubtless respond with improvements in its own products as voice — the most natural user interface of all — becomes the new battleground for the hearts and minds of consumers.

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