Saturday, November 05, 2011

Siri a Google Killer? Get Real

To hear folks enthuse about Apple's latest wünderapp, Siri, you would have thought Apple had produced an application so sublime that nothing could stand before its sheer awesomeness, so powerful that it could slay a multi-billion dollar technology titan such as Google. Or at least that's what Eric Jackson of Forbes would desperately like for you to believe.

The problem with such prognostications is how easily they look like the ravings of a fool under the harsh light of reality. For example, this past week every instance of Siri stopped working for five hours because of an outage somewhere in the iCloud.

I find it amazing as well as disconcerting that for Siri to properly function it needs to be eternally connected to another service external to the iPhone. And that's not good, especially when it stops and delivers the equivalent of "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that" when it looses access to its back-end services. But before I continue, let me introduce eight facts of distributed computing life that still apply to today's cloudy world, including and especially Apple.

The Eight Fallacies of Distributed Computing
  1. The network is reliable
  2. Latency is zero
  3. Bandwidth is infinite
  4. The network is secure
  5. Topology doesn't change
  6. There is one administrator
  7. Transport cost is zero
  8. The network is homogeneous
These eight fallacies were originally published by Peter Deutsch while working at Sun Microsystems in 1992. Yes, 1992. This is the same Sun that advertised ad nauseum "The network is the computer." The same Sun that invented Java, developed Solaris, and was eventually bought out by Oracle. Sun did a lot of very good work before it lost its way and was sucked into the Dark Side. But I digress...

It's those first three points that have the greatest effect on any cloud-based service, especially if that service is running on the public Internet. Apple knows this as well as any. It's Apple's cheerleaders and rabid apologist squads that Have No Clue.

How many AT&T users complained about dropped calls and poor 3G service, starting from the first iPhone that was released on the AT&T network? How about all those Blackberry users who put up with another service outage in early October, this one lasting for three days before it was finally fixed? Or the two service outages for Amazon's EC2 in April and August of this year? Amazon's outages took down Reddit in April and Netflix in August (bit of karma in that one). Siri is interesting, but Siri is little more than an interesting beta application. The idea that Siri will take down Google, let alone strike long-term fear into the Googlean heart is ludicrous. To sum it up best:
There's a broader issue and lesson to be learned from it [Siri's outage]: How much should mobile devices depend on cloud services for key functionality.

"Given the state of data services in the US right now, I don't think a service like Siri is ready for prime-time" Paladino asserts. "Nor do I think ChromeOS was a good idea without offline capabilities. The fact that Siri needs a data connection to do local tasks like play a song or schedule an appointment is the big fail in my eyes".

4 comments:

  1. There's a broader issue and lesson to be learned from it [Siri's outage]: How much should mobile devices depend on cloud services for key functionality.

    Of course Google is also a 'cloud' service that depends on being connected to an external service to work. No smart phone is much use without constant access to specific data centres, the internet, and communications towers. The network is the cell phone.

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  2. Of course Google is also a 'cloud' service that depends on being connected to an external service to work.

    No argument there. That's why Google's ChromeOS and ChromeBooks are still something of a joke.

    No smart phone is much use without constant access to specific data centres, the internet, and communications towers.

    Again, no argument there. The current infrastructure tying together end devices (such as cell phones) has taken a good half century and trillions of dollars to build out.

    The network is the cell phone.

    The cellphone is just an end node, one more way to access services across the network. Along with netbooks, notebook, personal computers, game consoles, etc.

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  3. The top three fallacies you bolded are ones that I've frequently discussed as important reasons why "do it all on the web/cloud" has its limitations. But what I find most humorous about them (being a smartphone data user pre-iPhone) is just how many people believed they didn't exist as fallacies, until they magically "discovered" them upon trying to use the original iPhone "as advertised."

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  4. It seems like it wasn't so long ago when documents were local and the people I'd talk to were in the same room as I was. These days when the internet connection is down there's not much point in even turning on the computer. But now I hardly remember the transition.

    There's a huge amount of absurdity out there, and unfortunately a lot of it clusters around Apple products, put there from both sides. Where I am – downtown Toronto is not too far from Waterloo, Ontario – Android phones have been easily outnumbered by Blackberry devices. So each time RIM has brought out a touch-screen phone it's been marketed at The iPhone Killer. It's absurd; they barely even compete in the same market. Granted, I did recently learn that my nieces would prefer Blackberries to their iPhones, but they want the keyboard more than a touch screen.

    I once worked in an IT company that was trying to deploy Citrix servers and thin clients around their two offices. That was fifteen years ago – one of my co-workers had recently hard-wired his house for 10base2 thinnet – and I'm not convinced that much has changed. Improved, certainly, but not really changed.

    The Siri service didn't fail in Canada, but I will always cherish the news tweet that said "Siri goes down for users…" It's the one time that the personification of a computer program didn't annoy me.

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