"Who is taller: LeBron or Kobe?"
This single, somewhat irreverent question -- spoken in the general direction of an iPhone during Apple's 2012 WWDC keynote by Apple's iOS chief Scott Forstall -- has almost nothing to do with smartphones or computers or technology in general; and yet it was, I would argue, the most important thing that was said on stage over the unpredictable course of Apple's entire 90-minute hype-spectacle-cum-media-event on Monday afternoon.
The question was asked of Siri, the iPhone 4S' (and soon, iPad 3's) virtual assistant. Siri retreated momentarily into the gadgetry brains of the iPhone, and then reemerged, responding in that immediately recognizable, slightly mechanical voice of hers: "LeBron James appears to be slightly taller."
Forstall's query was meant to demonstrate one of several new knowledge bases that will come to Siri in the upcoming iOS 6 update: You will soon be able to ask your iPhone for sports scores, games' scheduled start times and historical information about athletes, as well as for restaurant information and reservation availability, and also for movie times and reviews and actor and actress and director filmographies.
What the question really demonstrated, however, is that Apple's strongest, most dazzling weapon in the war to differentiate its iPhone from All Those Other Smartphones just received a fresh stockpile of ammunition. Thanks to a series of shrewd advertisements, "Siri" has become public shorthand for the magic and innovation of Apple, a technology one can only access on the iPhone; it is Apple's most unique feature on its most financially important product, and the marketing team knows it. These updates will allow Apple to continue its Siri-driven advertising assault: Soon, you will see Peter Dinklage attempting to locate well-reviewed Peruvian diners in Williamsburg, or Werner Herzog asking Siri for Albert Pujols' career batting average, or whatever.
And those commercials, like their predecessors, will score very well with television viewers and will probably sell many millions more smartphones for Apple. Deceptive advertising lawsuits be damned: The minds that have written the zeitgeisty Zooey/Samuel L./Malkovich Siri commercials have an entirely new set of functionalities to write around.
"Who is taller: Lebron or Kobe?" is a perfect summation of everything that Apple wishes to project onto its voice assistant, accurate or not. Siri is represented in Apple's TV advertisements as an infinite font of artificial knowledge and capability, a character and personality of whom you can ask anything and who can retrieve any information before you can snap your fingers.
As anyone who has used Siri can tell you, that representation is wishful thinking: Siri is neither very fast, nor infinitely brilliant -- not yet, anyway.
What Siri is, however, is a money-generating machine. See, the iPhone makes up well over 50 percent of Apple's revenue -- in the second quarter of 2012, for example, iPhone sales represented $22.7 billion of Apple's total $39.2 billion revenue. The major driving force behind all of those iPhone sales? Siri. You haven't been able to turn on a television in the past eight months without seeing Zooey Deschanel asking her iPhone if it's raining, or John Malkovich demanding Siri provide him with the meaning of life.
In the past eight months, since the release of the iPhone 4S, Apple has produced 15 commercials that advertise the iPhone 4S. 11 of them, including seven of the past eight, focus directly on what one can do with Siri. Apple is selling tens of millions of smartphones per quarter, and it is selling them on the mystique and seemingly limitless potential of Siri.
Financial importance aside, there is good reason for Apple to tout its voice assistant above all of the other facets of iOS: Siri is, after all the single feature that most clearly distinguishes the iPhone from every other smartphone. Apple's other major iOS announcements of the day -- Facebook integration, turn-by-turn navigation, video chat over 3G, responding to incoming phone calls via text message, a VIP inbox for email -- were all, every single one of them, already available on either Android or Windows Phone or both.
Though these announcements have been getting a lot of attention from the tech press, and were received by the hoots and hollers of the iOS developers in attendance, the truth is that each of these "new" features really represented Apple playing catch-up to a competitor, in some cases by adding functionality that has been available elsewhere for years.
With enhancements to Siri, however, Apple is not playing catch-up. It is already far out ahead of its competitors: Android's Voice Actions and Windows Phone's Tellme applications simply cannot compete with Siri's sophistication, or breadth of functions, or, especially, in the simple fun it is to use and explore and show off to friends.
Siri is also, unlike Android Voice Actions and Windows Phone's Tellme app, incredibly camera friendly and an absolute revenue magnet. If Siri can now reckon the comparative height of two star basketball players -- without even hearing their last names, at that -- it means even more money for Apple, in Apple's most valuable product sector.
At WWDC, new notebook computers, with some of the finest specs that (lots of) money can buy, were announced. Dozens of new operating system features were unveiled, as was a whiz-bang, Google-taunting Maps application, the integration of Facebook into iOS, and several impressive additions to Apple's upcoming Mountain Lion OS X for traditional Mac computers.
And yet it was Siri flawlessly and quickly answering a mundane question about basketball that Apple should be most excited about: LeBron is taller, Siri is smarter, and the bewitching Apple advertising juggernaut shall parade forward.
"Siri, is THAT rain?" Yes, Zooey. It is rain -- the rain of ever-more money showering down upon Apple's heads thanks to an incremental update to its killer feature. Now get inside and order yourself some tomato soup: The NBA Finals are about to start.