For the moment, at least, Apple’s new Siri feature is back online and cheerfully responding to instructions, but it’s hard to say how long that’s going to last. I had trouble getting Siri to respond to my requests from 10am to 2pm Pacific time on Friday and that’s in addition to the long block of downtime the service experienced on Thursday. All the trouble raises the question: Why can’t Apple get cloud services right?
Apple’s MobileMe suite of web services was an unmitigated disaster for the company, largely due to long periods of unexplained downtime. Now Apple seems to be repeating those mistakes. Siri is much better designed than MobileMe, a service that was plagued by bugs at launch, but these recent troubles show that Apple still hasn’t learned that uptime is really the only statistic that matters for web services.
No matter how functional your cloud service is or how well you’ve designed the interface, users won’t care if they can’t access it. This is even more obvious with a service like Siri that loses even the most basic functionality when Apple’s servers are down. Because Siri depends on servers to do the heavy computing required for voice recognition, the service is useless without that connection.
While these recent outages are the longest and most obvious, they’re hardly the first since the service launched. Searching back through Apple’s support forums, I found reports of Siri downtime dating back to the launch of the 4S on October 14th.
In fairness, Apple launched Siri as a beta, an unusual move for the company, and an indication that there were a few kinks to work out. But a beta label usually means that the software is still under development, not that there aren't enough servers or competent technicians to keep the service running.
And remember that by limiting Siri to the 4S, they've already seriously cut the load on their servers. After all, industrious hackers have already shown that Siri could run on the hardware of older iPhone and iPad models, but Apple won't allow those gerryrigged devices to access their servers.
Apple’s famous desire for secrecy also works against it here. There was almost a week of speculation before Apple finally commented on issues with the iPhone 4S battery on Wednesday. Apple didn't take as long to acknowledge this problem, but it didn't provide real-time information either.
If Apple wants their new virtual assistant to survive they’re going to need to take uptime a lot more seriously. At a minimum Apple should bulk up the amount of hardware they have running Siri and launch a site similar to Google’s Status Dashboard to let users know when Siri is having issues.