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Siri Refuses to Acknowledge Tiananmen Square to Chinese Users

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Despite manufacturing many of its products in China, Apple (AAPL) has been relatively slow to tailor its devices to Chinese-speaking consumers.

The iPhone didn’t get a proper release in China until 2009, well over two years since its initial launch, and since then, Apple hasn’t done much to make the iPhone experience better suited to the world’s largest cell phone market. iPhone users in China have had to turn to third-party apps to access web services, since its integrated apps for Twitter, Facebook (FB), and the like couldn’t negotiate language differences or government filters. Amazingly, the App Store only began accepting payments in yuan in late 2011. Users’ attempts to interact with Siri in Chinese produced no Deschanel-ian whimsy, though they did inspire a few videos outlining the frustrating experience.

At last week’s Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference, CEO Tim Cook made a few announcements that indicated the company was changing its tune. Impending OS updates will contain better integration for the most popular Chinese web services and improved input for pinyin (the system for transcribing Chinese into Roman characters). Most interestingly, the new OS will include a version of Siri that can speak and understand Mandarin and Cantonese.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges of developing anything for the Chinese market is dealing with government censorship, and Siri is no exception. Development testers have found that when you ask about Siri about Tiananmen Square, or “the events of June 4, 1989,” they receive confused or nonsensical responses. Attempts to even ask for directions to Tiananmen Square return similarly garbled results. This last detail is particularly odd because, apart from its role as site of pro-democracy protests, Tiananmen Square is a major landmark in Beijing. From a geographic standpoint, not being able to locate it is roughly akin to an American iPhone saying it doesn’t recognize the phrase “Central Park.”

While it’s natural to sniff conspiracy in this, the explanation may be more benign. Development testers of the new OS have also pointed out the Chinese version of Siri has difficulty interpreting relatively complicated speech, and that its responses are a tad robotic (though it has produced a few choice one liners). Attempts to get directions to less controversial locales had a similar failure rate. In other words, Siri’s ignorance of Tiananmen Square could simply be a failure of software rather than a failure of free speech. We probably won’t know the real answer until a full OS release, or until someone asks Siri her opinion on the Dalai Lama.

Or maybe takes the advice of Steve Wozniak and switches over to Android (GOOG).

(See also: iPhone Can't Match Android's Versaility, Says Steve Wozniak and Apple Co-Founder Hates Siri, Too)
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