How Apple let Siri fall behind the Google Assistant and Alexa
Apple has drastically improved Siri over the years, adding new features and upgrading its voice to sound more human-like, but its ongoing shortcomings really revealed themselves in the recent launch of the HomePod, the company’s first product that’s almost entirely controlled by the voice assistant.
So how did Apple screw up Siri so badly when it was released so far in advance of the competition? A new report from The Information reveals how years of missteps left Siri eating dust.
According to the report, after acquiring the original Siri app in 2010 for $200 million, Apple proceeded to quickly integrate the digital assistant into the iPhone 4S in 2011. There was so much potential for Siri, and Apple promised to bring voice controls to the masses just as it did multi-touch on the original iPhone.
Except the voice-controlled computing revolution never quite happened the way Apple predicted. iPhones users quickly realized that Siri couldn’t do a lot of things. And even after Apple opened Siri up with SiriKit in 2016, it still isn’t as intelligent as the Google Assistant or Alexa.
So what the heck happened?
According The Information, it all went downhill after Steve Jobs died in 2011. Jobs’ death marked the beginning of Siri’s downfall.
Instead of continuously updating Siri so that it would get smarter faster, Richard Williamson, one of the former iOS chief Scott Forstall’s deputies, reportedly only wanted to update the assistant annually to coincide with new iOS releases.
Frustrated by all the patching they were doing to Siri, engineers reportedly batted around the idea of starting over.
This is, of course, not how a digital assistant should be treated. As Google and Amazon have demonstrated, digital assistants need to constantly be updated in the background in order to keep up with the ever-changing demands of its users.
Williamson denies the accusations that he slowed Siri development down and instead cast blame on Siri’s creators.
“It was slow, when it worked at all,” Williamson said. “The software was riddled with serious bugs. Those problems lie entirely with the original Siri team, certainly not me.”
Other problems over the years included layering new elements on top of Siri using technologies culled from new acquisitions. For example, the Siri team had issues integrating new search features from Apple’s acquisition of Topsy in 2013 and natural language features from the VocalIQ acquisition in 2015.
“Members of the Topsy team expressed a reluctance to work with a Siri team they viewed as slow and bogged down by the initial infrastructure that had been patched up but never completely replaced since it launched.”
Frustrated by all the patching they were doing to Siri, engineers reportedly considered starting over from scratch. Instead of building on top of Siri’s reportedly bad infrastructure, they would rebuild Siri from the ground up — correctly on the second time around. Of course, when you’re serving hundreds of millions of users across all of Apple’s devices, that’s a tall task.
The most revealing part of the report exposes how Apple didn’t even have plans to integrate Siri into HomePod until after the Amazon Echo launched:
In a sign of how unprepared Apple was to deal with a rivalry, two Siri team members told The Information that their team didn’t even learn about Apple’s HomePod project until 2015—after Amazon unveiled the Echo in late 2014. One of Apple’s original plans was to launch its speaker without Siri included, according to a source.
Right now, it looks like Siri won’t be blown up and a rebuilt. And if Apple wants to transform its assistant into a true competitor to the Google Assistant and Alexa, it’ll need to sort out its internal management issues and decide what it really wants Siri to be. For all users, we hope it’s more intelligence and deeper integration with third-party apps and services.