So Siri gets a bit of bad rap. While everyone with experience with today’s crop of digital assistants has their preferences, there is no definitive study that points to Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, or any of the rest as being markedly better than its counterparts.
Where Siri fails — and where Apple has an opportunity to course-correct at Monday’s keynote to kick off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) — is on the hardware side. That isn’t to say Apple has built poor devices (it hasn’t), just that none of them have been an ideal home for its voice assistant.
The reaction Siri provokes in Apple customers is most often one of annoyance.
Let’s start with the iPhone. For starters, Siri is built into the Home button, which has many functions, meaning, for many, the most common interaction is when they activate Siri by mistake. Think about that: The reaction Siri provokes in Apple customers is most often one of annoyance. While it’s nothing Siri has done specifically, the more it happens, the more a psychological connection is made. It’s simply not a good look.
Then there’s the need to pull your iPhone out of your pocket before you can say anything. Yes, I realize Siri went hands-free some time ago, but speaking to a phone that’s still in your pocket or handbag is impractical for multiple reasons. And if you already have your phone in your hand anyway, it’s often quicker to just do the thing you want to do by hand, rather than gambling that Siri will get it right the first time.
The Apple Watch seemingly improves things by giving Siri a place where it’s more at the ready: Just lift your wrist, say its name, and it’s there. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch’s relatively weak processor means lags are the norm. Siri also suffers from the lack of Apple Watch apps, and more often than not will simply kick you to your phone in response to a query.
Apple made a big deal about bringing Siri to the Apple TV, but you don’t hear much about it anymore. That’s probably because the interaction is driven from the remote, which is universally panned as horribly designed. In any case, using Siri on the Apple TV offers a pretty limited use case.
As for Siri on the Mac, you just need to look at Microsoft’s experience with Cortana — which has been on the PC since Windows 10 — to get a sense of how that’s going.
Siri hears an Echo
Where this is all obviously leading is a Siri-powered “smart speaker” similar to the Amazon Echo, and the rumour mill predictss Apple will unveil one — if not at WWDC then at an event later this year. The move makes sense; it’s even overdue. From its slow start in late 2014, the Echo has proven that a standalone, always-on gateway is what’s needed to elevate voice AI into what some call “ambient computing.” Since then, Google’s Assistant and Cortana both got their own speaker hubs; all the cool assistants are doing it.
However, if you’re thinking the Siri speaker will follow the usual Apple MO of swooping into a new or sleepy category with a better product, you’re probably in for a disappointment. Amazon’s Echo products are satisfying mostly because of the company’s impressive microphone technology. Even if Apple gets that part right, it’s not like Siri is going to suddenly get smarter because it got a new home.
Siri’s also hobbled by the way Apple handles privacy. If you’ve ever noticed that Siri sometimes gives wildly different answers to queries depending on whether you make them on your Mac, iPad or iPhone, you’re far from alone. That’s because some parts of the Siri experience are purposely kept on the device to ensure they’re kept private. That has benefits in the abstract, but it sometimes means Siri feels dumber than it should.
Despite all this, a Siri speaker is a good move for Apple and its customers. By creating a Siri-specific product, where it can succeed or fail on its own terms — and not limited by form factors that were never designed specifically for an AI — Apple has put all the pieces in place for us to start seeing its digital assistant in a better light. After all, Alexa can be pretty ditzy, too, but when you literally don’t have to lift a finger to get something done, it’s a whole other level of delight.