Apple's long-anticipated voice control system for the iPhone and iPad could make its debut in iOS 5 or as an iPhone 5 exclusive later this year, if a leaked screenshot confirming an "Assistant" feature in the platform's settings is anything to go by. According to that image, passed to 9 to 5 Mac by a trusted source, and the iOS 5 SDK itself, Assistant will use a combination of on-device and cloud processing to recognize natural-speech instructions - such as "Find me more music by U2" - and be able to use various data sources to present the best set of results.
The "Assistant" feature is expected to be powered by technology Apple acquired or licensed from Siri and Nuance respectively. According to a mention in the iOS SDK, as well as any voice commands given, Assistant will also use details saved in your contacts, metadata from songs in your library, and your current location to better calculate its results:
"Assistant uses your voice input and other information like your contact names, song names, and location to understand your requests. This data will be sent to Apple to process your request and to improve Apple products and services" iOS SDK
Apple would be able to use each voice command to improve the quality of its service overall, in a similar way to how usage data teaches the Genius function in iTunes how to make better suggestions. Two way speech would be supported, meaning that Assistant could be used whether your iPhone was in your hand or in your bag.
Siri "Personal Assistant" demo:
This sort of functionality was predicted back in March, when analysts suggested that Apple could use its new North Carolina data center to process Google Maps Navigation rivaling PND services as well as a voice control system. Off-device processing - as Google uses for its own Voice Command option on Android handsets - means that the phone or tablet's CPU isn't overwhelmed by each task, but it does also demand a significant cloud ecosystem to support it.
Whether Assistant will be a part of iOS 5 is unclear at present. Apple may well decide to limit the service to the fifth-gen iPhone alone, as it did with Voice Control and video recording on the iPhone 3GS, in an attempt to better differentiate the new handset expected later in the year.