The iPhone’s talking pal Siri has, to date, been about as helpful as an umbrella in a hurricane. That’s about to change.
At the Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple
CEO Tim Cook touted new features and catch-up software tweaks, from the iPhone and Mac to the Apple Watch and TV. One of the few technologies that spanned all those products was Siri, the virtual assistant that lets us talk and interact with gadgets like they know us. Siri is growing up, and moving to the center of Apple’s universe.
In the months ahead, Siri will arrive on Mac computers and tackle more complex tasks on the Apple TV, where it first appeared last year. And most important, Siri’s opening up: It—or should I say she?—will gain the ability to send messages, make phone calls, book rides and pay for stuff using apps and services not made by Apple.
“I think we’re going to see [Siri] become more important over time as people go from using Lyft a couple times per week to a couple times per day,” Lyft CTO Chris Lambert told me after Apple’s keynote. The ride-hailing company’s app is one of the first to tap into Siri. When iOS 10 arrives this fall, you’ll be able to say to your iPhone, “Order me a Lyft,” and a ride will just show up, no buttons required.
Apple didn’t do a very good job Monday of explaining why all of this matters. Talking to a computer like it’s human isn’t just some geek Star Trek fantasy. Our voices are turning out to be crucial for interacting with tech in situations that don’t lend themselves to a keyboard, mouse or touch screen—and that includes many, if not most, gadgets we’ll meet in the future.
Voice is useful for searching the TV for a show, finding directions while driving, using recipes when your hands are full of cookie dough and cuing up that Justin Timberlake jam stuck in your head.
Apple was one of the first tech giants, back in 2011, to build talking tech into everyday devices. At the time, they called it a beta, and it’s felt like test software for too long. Siri now receives over 2 billion requests a week. Even so, when I ask Siri to help with something, it often just pops up a random search or misunderstands in a way that makes me say, “Oh, Siri,” like it’s a lost puppy.
Meanwhile, Apple lost ground to rivals like Google. The search giant’s Voice Search and Now services (currently being wrapped into its forthcoming Google Assistant) integrate data about our lives to predict what we need and respond with context. The most surprising threat to Apple’s voice dominance is Amazon, whose Alexa, built inside the Echo speaker, has become an unofficial member of my household. Why? It’s always a quick shout away, ready to perform basic tasks like set a timer or play a song.
If Apple is to have a future beyond the iPhone, it will have to master voice. And Apple has the chance to regain the pole position in talking tech if it follows through on the vision it laid out on Monday. Here’s why:
Siri is finally, mostly, everywhere. Now that it’s coming to the Mac, too, you’ll be able to turn to Siri regardless of which device is closest—assuming you have all Apple gear. There was no mention of it on Monday, but I hope Apple will follow through with rumored plans to introduce a stand-alone Siri device that lives at home and is always listening for your command, like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s forthcoming Home. We’ll also have to see in practice how well the Siris on different devices work together.
Siri’s TV search now includes YouTube. You’re not really searching the world of entertainment in 2016 without access to all those cat videos and up-and-coming pop stars.
Siri’s intelligence is growing. Apple is using Siri’s ability to parse through our calendars, emails, playlists and photos to make its responses less random and more useful, and even propose responses via its new, Siri-powered QuickType keyboard. Again, this will bear out in real use, but Apple said on Monday that Siri would be able to respond to questions like “Find videos I took at Iva’s birthday party.” Though Apple claims to have a privacy-conscious data mining solution called “differential privacy,” its avowed stance on privacy could make it harder for it to keep up with unabashedly data-hungry rivals like Google. It’s hard to grasp context and anticipate a person’s needs when you don’t know exactly whom you’re serving.
Siri’s finally learning to hear us. Understanding context is natural for humans, but very hard for computers. The new Siri can understand many ways to ask for the same thing, said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, during the keynote. “Tell Nancy I’ll be five minutes late with WeChat
” counts as much as “Siri, can you shoot a message on WeChat and say that I’ll be five minutes late?” (And it can do that in all sorts of languages.) Apple even said the new Siri would be able to respond to tricky context-based queries such as “Remember this later.”
Most of all: Now we can tell Siri what to do, not just ask questions. Just as the App Store made the iPhone way more useful than it was when it only ran Apple-made apps, opening Siri to outsiders will let its new skills develop exponentially. At first, Apple has limited its SiriKit developer tool to a few domains, including messaging, phone calls, photo search, ride booking, mobile payments, exercise and in-car climate control and entertainment. Google can send messages on your behalf to WhatsApp, Viber and more, but doesn’t yet have anything quite like SiriKit. Amazon’s Alexa has more than 1,000 third-party apps, but its devices are speakers that mostly sit on a shelf, rather than travel with you.
Apple earned a bad rap for promising big and delivering little with Siri. It’s easy to get excited about promises from tech companies. There’s a thin line between a helpful talking gadget and one that you want to throw out a window because you just wasted three minutes saying “ORDER … A … LYFT …” over and over again to no avail.
When will Siri feel like an actual assistant? That might be a ways off. Still, a deeper relationship is now within reach, said Jason Whitson, the director of product at UnderArmour’s popular MapMyRun app, another early partner on the new Siri.
When iOS 10 comes out, MapMyRun users will be able to just ask Siri to start, pause, resume or end a session. “When you are working out, having to interact with your phone is a barrier,” he said. Trying to tap on a phone while running can make you dizzy—and puts you at risk of running into things.
“What Apple released is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Whitson. He sees a day when MapMyRun is almost entirely a hands-off experience. We’ll be able to ask Siri more sophisticated questions about our workout habits, or use it to track our diet. “She—I mean it—could eventually be your coach,” he said.
Well, before Siri can be my running buddy, Apple has to conquer this: Talking to your phone (or TV or watch or computer) still makes you look a little crazy.