Today, ten years ago, Apple's digital assistant Siri was unveiled with the promise that it had finally figured everything.
Technologists have been teasing us for decades with the dream of being able to communicate with technology. This was the claim that Apple executive Phil Schiller made when he took the stage to launch the iPhone 4s. This has been repeated many times before. It never comes true.
Schiller said that the problem was voice interfaces being too dependent on simple syntax. Call Mom. Call 555-2368 Play Beethoven. Play Beethoven. Siri is a feature of the iPhone 4s.
We really want to talk to our devices, Schiller stated.
Schiller described Siri as a humble personal assistant who gave the iPhone 2011 a boost of star power in a time when Apple was struggling. Tim Cook, the then-chief operating officer of Apple, was named CEO just months prior to the phones' unveiling. Apples co-founder Steve Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer the day after Schiller's presentation, was announced. Analysts were skeptical about the company's prospects, but they praised Siri for being a game-changer. One analyst called it a powerful indicator of future mobile device use, while another stated that Siri was the beginning [of] a new user experience for all Apple's Mac and mobile products.
Siri's star has been lost a decade later. It is so disappointing, Schiller said of the promise of voice interfaces in the past. This description could easily be applied for Apples contribution to this genre. Every Siri user has their own stories of frustration with Apples assistant. While voice interfaces are becoming more common, Apple is still the leader in this market. Its humble personal assistant is still very humble: it's inferior to Google Assistant for mobile and outclassed by Amazons Alexa for the home.
One question seems to be worth asking after a decade of Apple's personal assistant development: Hey Siri, what happened?
The wow factor
Recalling 2011's initial reactions to Siri, reviewers were impressed by its responsiveness and accuracy. The amazing thing about Siri is its ability to work at least most of what you would expect, according to The Verges judgment. Siri works like an unpaid intern at my beck, CNN said. Siri saves time, distractions, and greatly changes the definitions of phones, according The New York Times. Apple seems to be keeping its promises.
It is clear that Siri was graded on an axis based on the reviews. Although the software's novelty and ambition drew praises, reviewers acknowledged frustrations and said that it was still in beta. Any rough patches would be fixed in time. Ars Technica provides a detailed review of Siri 2011 and highlights the problems that Siri faces today. Siri is known for misunderstanding complex commands and mishearing louder words. Siri interprets a request to send a text message to Jason, Clint and Sam saying they were going to Silver Cloud.
Siri was the first to appear on the scene. But soon, he was only part of the chorus.
Siri was the first to market, but there were many competitors. In 2012, Samsung introduced S Voice to the Galaxy S3; in the same year, Google Now for Android was launched (replaced in 2016 by Google Assistant); in 2014 Microsoft released Cortana for Windows Phone; while Amazon also introduced customers to Alexa via the Echo smart speaker. Talking to your computer became a standard feature on all mobile devices as well as a variety of other gadgets.
Two things stand out when comparing digital assistants over the past year. First, Siri is quickly gotten old. Reviewers often notice incremental updates to Siri, but don't devote much space to its features as they look at iPhones after the 4s. This could be partly due to the small changes (e.g., retrieving sports results from iOS 6, integrating Wikipedia in iOS 7, and introducing Hey Siri in iOS 8, but also because it is no longer a novelty.
Siri is barely mentioned when we reach the iPhone 8 2017 reviews. Our review sums up Siri's contribution to the iPhone 8 in 2017. It sounds much better, but it is not more capable than before.
Another major trend was that Apple's advantage quickly waned when competitors arrived. Comparison of Siri and Samsungs S Voice 2012 shows that the former offers an excellent approximation to Apples digital assistant. However, a head-tohead test in 2014 showed that Google Now is superior to Siri, and that there was a growing dissatisfaction about digital assistants generally. These assistants are able to answer basic questions but they don't reliably perform tasks like ordering food or booking tickets. They don't create new problems, at least not without creating them.
It is clear that Siri's biggest problem was losing momentum. Apple's digital assistant was initially popular for setting alarms and taking notes. It never expanded on the basic tasks. Although it is fun to be able to answer trivia questions or retrieve scores from sports, this upgrade is not as important as telling a computer how to do a task using your voice. Siri's capabilities were quickly outmatched by rivals. They offered more reliable dictation, better understanding of language, and integration with third party skills. Siri couldn't keep up.
Trouble at the top
What went wrong? What caused Apple to lose its lead in the market? It's complicated.
Many believe Apple's commitment to privacy makes it impossible to keep up with Google and other companies that collect data from users. This data can be extremely useful in improving AI systems. This is not a reason Siri's failure. Apple's obsession with user privacy is not absolute. The Guardian reported in 2019 that some Siri recordings were being sent to contractors for analysis. A whistleblower claimed they had access to conversations between doctors and patients, as well as business deals, criminal dealings, and sexual encounters. It can pay to generate the data if it wishes to avoid the problems associated with collecting user data. While it is useful to analyze random Siri interactions, there are other methods that can provide the same benefits.
They lost the vision when Steve died just one day after Siri was launched.
Management dysfunction is a more convincing explanation. The Information published a report in 2018 that detailed the goings and comings of Siri's team. The report noted deep-seated disagreements within the company over how Siri should be used. These differences stemmed from Jobs' original plans for Siri, but they had turned into petty turf wars and heated arguments among rival factions. These problems were made worse by the lack of leadership and continuity among Apple executives who oversee Siri. One former employee said to The Information that when Steve died, the vision [...] was lost.
Apple's philosophy of technology development is also a problem. According to The Informations, Richard Williamson, an Apple executive, decided that Siri should be updated only once per year in accordance with the company's schedule of iOS and new hardware releases. This appears to have slowed down progress. (Williamson refuted this claim and left Apple in 2012 after leading the launch of Apple Maps that was a disaster. Scott Forstall, another executive who was involved in Siri, Apple Maps and other projects, left the company that year. You can take that as a sign of your trust.
Apple's walled-garden approach means Siri works well with iOS features, but fails with third-party apps. In preparation for this story I tested Siri and was constantly surprised at its inability to perform simple tasks on popular iOS applications. Siri cannot send a voice message on WhatsApp, can't post a story on Instagram, can't record a run with RunKeeper, and can't open the New York Times crossword. While outside developers are partially to blame for the lack of interoperability, it is Apple's responsibility to promote such functionality via toolkits and other tools. Apple is certainly not an example to follow. Siri will not respond to my request for information stored in iOS. Instead, it will perform an image search for the phrase "last August" and show me photos.
Apple instead uses Siri to direct people to inferior apps, such as a shepherd leading sheep off a cliff face. Siri prompts me to reinstall Apple Maps if I ask for directions (even though I use Citymapper and Google Maps). Siri will tell me that I cannot send an email to my boss if I ask for directions. It then directs me the App Store to download Apple's default mail application (I use Outlook). Here's an indication of how sloppy Siri's development is: Siri will set up a search on the App Store for mobilemail when this happens. This is not Apple's mail app name, but an ID that iOS developers use, so it returns a blank page when you search it on the App store. This is the result of a company not thoroughly testing its product.
However, this last point highlights a problem not only with Apple's assistant but voice interfaces in general. It is one of expectations.
Schiller stressed that Siri would be able to understand the words of its users when he introduced Siri in 2011. Siri's functionality was set too high by this statement. Voice interfaces will never be as fluent and knowledgeable as human beings. We talk, but they fall. We try to guess their capabilities, but they fail. They don't support the command or app we expected them to. Users learn from each failed interaction: Don't trust this feature. Screens and displays, on the other hand, clearly show us what we can and can't do. They provide buttons, instructions, and menus. Voices offer only themselves and our projections. Siri users are guided by Apple's theatrical flair. They expect too much from Apple, but Apple delivers too little.
Voice is the future
Here's a true story. Just now, I stopped writing this article to have a cup of tea. Then I remembered that I had an important meeting in just a few hours. Fearing that it might go bye, I asked Siri to remind me. Siri, remind me that I have a phone call at ten to five, I said. Siri said, Okay. Setting a reminder for tomorrow morning at five: You have a call. I tried again. Siri set a reminder for 10 p.m. in the evening. I stopped mid-command the third time to try to find a better way to phrase my question. Siri became tired of waiting and beeped at my: What do I need to remind you about?
Apple cannot afford to lose Siri
Siri and its sibling apps are sometimes disappointing but they offer great potential. The technology is a real advance, despite the limitations of voice interfaces. Siri is a great tool for quick tasks like setting timers and taking notes. It works flawlessly and without thinking when it works. It is a time-saver. Siri can do a lot more, especially if you are willing to explore the world of Apple Shortcuts, smart home commands, and other Apple Shortcuts.
Voice controls and dictation are an accessibility tool that have made modern gadgets more accessible to many users. Since Apple introduced Siri in 2011, a variety of products have been launched that heavily rely on voice. Either screen real estate is very limited on the Apple Watch (the Apple Watch), or it is virtually nonexistent on the AirPods, HomePod and AirPods. We can expect Apple's augmented reality glasses in the years ahead. Apple must fix Siri immediately and not ignore it.
There are signs that the company is making positive steps. Apple has been paying more attention to AI in general in recent years. Apple is clearly paying more attention, from poaching Google's head of machine-learning in 2018, to creating its own AI processors, to regular launches of AI-enhanced functions. Siri has also seen some significant improvements with third-party hardware and on-device processing.
I am still skeptical though. It is clear that Siri seems to be moving backwards, even for basic commands. Apple has removed most of Siri's functionality with iOS 15. This includes tasks related to photos and notes, as well as third-party integrations such ride-hailing, payments, and other functions. Other commands such as checking voicemail seem to have disappeared recently (whether this is temporary or permanent).
Apple doesn't seem to know what Siri should be. That is the big problem. Does the feature allow you to use your voice to control your phone and navigate apps? Is it something more? An assistant that can perform complex tasks for you? Apple presents Siri in its marketing materials as the former, but users are limited to the former. As someone who works with AI and machine learning, it is still many years before computers can truly understand us. The problem of language is too complicated and too deeply rooted in culture and human experience to be solved by statistical models. While there are many impressive new languages available, none are reliable enough for creating a perfect digital assistant.
Apple must reset its expectations and put emphasis on core competencies if it wants Siri to be saved. It is interesting to see how Siri's launch compares with its competition. Google Assistant was introduced in 2016 by Google. The focus was less on complex tasks or understanding users, but more on making basic search functionality available in more places. This tighter focus allowed Google to surprise rather than disappoint. Although the company may have over-promised in its later ads, it is not surprising. Siri, on the other hand, surprised everyone when it launched in 2011. However, this goodwill has been lost. Apple should refocus on the basics and not push for a future that does not yet exist. Apple must listen.