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Safari, Alarms and Endless Confusion

It’s a sure thing that Siri is not the perfect personal assistant. Far from it, and the errors it makes can be mighty frustrating. It goes to show how much work Apple has to do in order to make Siri really useful for more people.

Now in the greater universe of tech gear, Siri is often compared, often unfavorably, to such competitors as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Voice (and Google Assistant). The excuse or explanation is that Apple needs to reduce its privacy standards, so customers give up more of it in exchange for a more responsive digital assistant.

But some simple instructions ought to be recognized without going through hoops or allowing Apple to grab ahold of some of your personal information.

So take a perfectly ordinary example. My wife uses her iPad as an alarm clock. She instructs Siri to set an alarm for a specific time each morning. It changes from morning to morning, and more than likely she’ll turn it off and program a totally different alarm for half an hour later. Maybe she should just set them all in advance, 30 minutes apart, but let me continue.

Barbara turns off the alarm each time. That can take a bit of extra work as I’ll explain shortly. She doesn’t manually look over the Clock app to see how many inactive alarms are there. When I check them out, I see dozens.

So the logical solution would be to ask Siri to just delete all of the inactive alarms, right? Now perhaps it works for you just fine. But it doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for her. Most of you know what my voice sounds like, since I host two nationally syndicated radio shows and have been in the radio business for decades. My wife’s voice reveals a modest Brooklyn accent, but is trained and well modulated. So one would think Siri would have no problem understanding such a command

When I try, Siri provides a list of the alarms, and asks which ones I want to delete. I can define it as the ones that are turned off, the ones that are inactive, the ones that are not being used. It doesn’t matter how I express that instruction. Siri remains similarly obtuse. The sole option that appears to work without specifying individual items is to delete them all, active or inactive.

The same is true or my iPhone, and I’m taken through the same set of frustrating steps.

Now deleting all of Barbara’s alarms is not such a big deal. After all, she sets up a new one every day, even if they are a few minutes apart. My alarms collection is more specific, and changes on the weekends. Without going into unnecessary detail, let me say that I need to wake up twice on Sunday mornings to upload the network distribution of my radio shows to the server for download via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. So I do not feel the need to remove them all and start over just to allow Siri to remove inactive alarms. How is that taking advantage of a digital assistant?

Perhaps there’s a magic formula that would work, but the user shouldn’t have to adapt in some strange way to Siri’s peculiar tastes. This, to me, appears to be a super simple command that ought to be obeyed without question. Can’t Siri detect the difference between an alarm that’s switched on, and one that’s switched off?

But I do understand why many people find Siri little more than an annoyance with only modest usefulness. I do not have enough experience with the competition to compare accuracy and the ability to manage contextual requests. Supposedly Siri got better with recent iOS releases. Certainly individual app developers can now use it, but I’m not at all convinced it’s much better, or any better, in most respects.

Forgetting Siri’s shortcomings — and I grant that depends on the user — I have another complaint that is more disturbing.

So when the alarm is triggered, a simple tap on Stop should dismiss it. Only on the two iPhones on which I’ve tested it — and iPhone 6 and an iPhone 7 — I usually have to press fairly hard on the touchscreen for the command to be recognized. Sometimes it requires repeating that tap a time or two. This appears to be the only touch command that is more difficult to activate than it should be. Sometimes it even goes into Snooze mode, which means it’ll fire again unless turned off.

All this just to use the iPhone as an alarm clock.

Now my wife has an old clock radio — bought in the early 2000s — that she used to use for its main purpose, getting her up in the morning on time. It works consistently and predictably unless there’s a power outage. The alarm is either an irritating buzz, or a selected radio station. It’s the same sort of clock radio I’ve used for years, and it cost maybe $15 or so at Walmart.

Maybe there’s something to be said about being old fashioned.