Hey Siri, It’s Time to Put Up or Shut Up
When Apple launched Siri more than four years ago, it felt revolutionary. If you didn’t see it then, go back and watch the video. Listen to the cheering, almost disbelieving reaction from the audience, and notice then-Apple exec Scott Forstall’s giggling amazement that this voice control thing actually works.
In that moment, it felt obvious that Apple was showing us the future of computing. No more opening apps, no more typing and tapping and scrolling—you just tell your phone what to do, and your omnipresent virtual assistant does it. Over the last few years, companies big and small have devoted themselves to creating the kind of all-powerful, all-knowing digital assistants that Forstall showed off that day. Apple’s as committed to Siri as ever, too, so much so that it’s also core to both Apple Watch and Apple TV.
But have you used Siri recently? Statistically, probably not. A recent study found that virtually all iPhone owners have tried Siri at some point, but that more than two-thirds use it “only rarely or sometimes.” If you do use it, you know it doesn’t work well enough. I’ve been trying to use Siri for years, and it’s still a constant guessing game. Will it know to remind me that I need to move the car in two hours, not that I need to move it to a place called Hours? (No.) Will it just default me to a web search I could have done more quickly somewhere else? (Almost certainly.) How many times do I have to say “Hey Siri!” before it hears me? (One million billion.)
The Alarming Reality
Over time, error rates for Siri and its ilk have fallen dramatically. But that doesn’t mean it can do what I’m asking. Sure, the system now knows lots of baseball stats, but Apple imagined Siri as a way to do everything you do, and its capabilities as an assistant are still very limited. Whether you’re shouting at your phone, television, or watch, there’s just not that much you can do. Alan Black, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute, says when he asks people what they use Siri for, “the answer is, usually, setting alarms.” Apple even made a whole ad about just that! This isn’t the future we were promised.
If the always-true rumors are true, Siri’s going to get a lot of stage time at WWDC this week. It’ll be made available on the Mac for the first time. It’s also going to be opened up for third-party developers to build into their apps, which could be the key to making Siri something much bigger than it’s ever been before. (And maybe, just maybe, Apple will launch a dedicated Siri Speaker to rival the Amazon Echo.) If Apple does all that and does it all right, Siri could finally start to live up to its potential.
Let’s Talk It Out
Virtual assistants are critical to the next phase of technology, as we go from staring into touchscreens to interacting constantly with every chip-laden thing in our homes, cars, and pockets. No virtual assistant is perfect, but from Google Now to Alexa to Cortana to Hound, there are options everywhere that are better than Siri. They’re faster, they handle more complex instructions, and they integrate with services actual humans use. Even Viv, which came from the guys who built Siri in the first place, is a more powerful platform.
Siri’s biggest problem has always been that using it feels like using an iPhone before the arrival of the App Store. While Amazon’s Alexa has integrated more than 1,000 third-party “skills,” Siri’s stayed connected only to Apple’s own services, plus a very small set of hand-picked partners. If you prefer Google Maps to Apple Maps, Spotify to Apple Music, Whatsapp to iMessage, or Facebook to Apple Music Connect, you’re totally out of luck. No single company could build all the apps and services people will want from Siri, which continues to limit its usefulness. And when Apple does build apps and services, they’re not always (or usually, or often, or even sometimes) very good. So you’re stuck: use worse apps, or ignore your phone’s coolest feature.
Imagine saying “Hey Siri, call me a Lyft” and having your phone chirp back that a car is coming in three minutes. Or long-pressing the home button and ordering Siri to “upload my last picture to Instagram with the Mayfair filter and the caption #bae #luhyou.” Or telling your phone you want to watch The Americans, and have it start streaming automatically from Hulu. That’s what Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others are already working on.
Luckily for Apple, it has two important advantages over even its fastest-moving competitors: It has a giant app store full of active developers, and it makes the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Apple Watch. You can download the other assistants to your iPhone, you can even put them in your dock, but there’s only one thing that launches every time hundreds of millions of people press and hold the home button. (Rest assured, that will not be changeable in the SDK.) Thanks to its celebrity-filled commercials and generally unparalleled marketing operation, everybody knows about Siri. And since the whole industry’s focus has turned to voice interfaces, more and more users want what Siri supposedly offers. Developers will eagerly integrate Siri into their apps and turn it from a half-deaf web searcher into a personalized, always-learning system that knows what you want and where to find it. Then, and only then, Siri will become indispensable.
The Timer Is Counting Down
Give Apple credit: long before chatbots were hot and virtual digital assistants were sexy, long even before Spike Jonze put Scarlett Johansson in Joaquin Phoenix’s ear, Apple was committed to Siri. The company promised a world where technology isn’t a distraction, but a partner. Where our gadgets work the way we think.
But Siri isn’t what it could be, or should be. While other assistants are getting to know us, understanding our voices and learning our tastes in food and airplane seats, Siri’s… setting alarms. Apple gets a big chance to fix that at WWDC, but it won’t get many more.
Hey Siri, schedule “Do or Die” for 10am on Monday. Hey Siri. HEY SIRI!
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