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The Decline of Apps and the Rise of Knowledge Plugins

Finally got around to watching the Oct 4th Apple iPhone 4S presentation. The main thing that struck me from this demo is Siri. Everything else is the usual great step forward, but Siri is another matter altogether.

Siri represents a compelling case for a front-end natural language interface to vast amounts of data. Put simply, you ask it questions and it gives you answers. In time, you will be able to ask it more complex questions and it will be able to provide more complex answers.

2001 HAL computer

What follows is a possible scenario, a possible way things might go, should Siri take off the way I think it might.

1. Siri Changes the User Experience

Siri changes the way you interact with your phone. You currently interact with your phone through applications that generally require interaction via the touch screen. If Siri takes off, you will touch the screen less. A lot less. When driving, in all sorts of situations. You'll talk to your device instead.

2. Are you talking to Apple's app or talking to a third party app?

If you're not interacting with your phone by touch, but rather talking to it, you are probably going through Apple's own natural language funnel, meaning, Siri. Question is, will Apple extend Siri's functionality to other apps, third party apps? Or will it keep it for its own?

One possible scenario: development of standalone apps declines. What rises instead is data. Tons of data. Logic. Logic and data mixed. Basically, domain knowledge. Expertise. Facts. The Yelp portion of the Siri demo in the video is what did it for me. That makes me think the future of the iPhone is kind of like HAL in the movie 2001. All those modules that make up Hal's knowledge and expert system. The more modules, or plugins, you pay for, the more your Siri knows about the world. Third parties become knowledge plugin developers. Apple opens the "Know Store". "Knows" like Yellow Pages, TV listings, sports info, stocks, medical knowledge, car info, travel info, tourist info, all sorts of things. All the things that Apple doesn't have the time or resources to build: let the third parties reign.

3. It's Not Just What You Know, but Who

But would these third parties be developing "apps"? I don't think so. I think they'd be developing server APIs. APIs that the iPhone can plug right into. (And heck, when Android has its Siri clone, that Android can plug into as well.) So there might not be as much need of a front-end UI designer, graphics design, etc, but rather it's all about information design, query design, knowledge design, knowledge rules, knowledge sets. And that's what the value-add would shift to.

Eventually a Yelp app would not need to have much of a UI if any. It'd be handled by Siri and a Yelp Know plugin. Siri would come pre-bundled with lots of Knows, but you could add more. Companies could compete to build the best Knows, and that becomes the next vibrant marketplace.

Companies with social networks, social graphs, and such, would theoretically be at an advantage in such a world, because they could enable Siri to ask more complex questions like "What are my friends doing tonight?" and "What shouldn't I get for Sally's birthday?"

I could envision walking into a hotel, and the hotel's wifi offering a free Know plugin that your phone can immediately use. So you could ask questions like, "What's on the room service menu" and "Have my friends checked in yet" and "Where is the conference registration desk in this hotel" and "What time does the pool open in the morning". Or walk into a grocery store and be able to slurp up the local Know for that store.

There will be all kinds of such opportunities for startups in the future. Which begins right now.

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