A couple of weeks ago, I predicted that 2018 will be the Year of Face ID for Apple. Based on the early device rumors of what is coming this year, that looks to be a pretty safe bet. I think it is just as much of a given that 2018 will also be the Year of Siri. It’s about time, as a focus on pushing Siri forward in terms of both features and user satisfaction is already long overdue.
Earlier this week, I wrote about a little bit of positive news for Apple’s Siri, as it scored higher this time out in Loup Ventures’ recurring test of the main digital assistants. However, going from a D+ to a C, while a good sign, isn’t the level of positive change I’m talking about. While I understand that Apple can’t pull even with Google in terms of accuracy and Amazon in ease of use and third party support overnight, they HAVE to get their service’s core functionality to work more reliably and consistently right now. For them to move forward and start to close any gaps with the competition, they have to be able to build on a more solid foundation.
Consistency is Key
There are plenty of things that could be discussed as ways of improving Siri, but at the end of the day, it is the consistency that needs to be addressed first and foremost. Right now, I get a far better experience using Siri with either my Watch or AirPods than I do either directly with my iPhone or using another Bluetooth audio accessory. While I am happy that I have better and more accurate devices to use Siri with, that isn’t good enough. There are FAR more iPhone owners who don’t own Watches and AirPods than those who do, so this HAS to be addressed. That performance gap has to be closed. If it means Apple needs to start tuning on-board mics on iPhones and iPads differently, or even adding a separate dedicated “Siri Mic,” then so be it.
This is one of the areas where Amazon has really excelled. While Alexa may not be everywhere yet (thanks in large part to Amazon’s abject failure in the phone market), it has a remarkably consistent experience across all of Amazon’s hardware. While I wouldn’t praise them much for their lackluster attempt to bring Alexa to the iPhone and Android via apps, most people are using Amazon’s assistant via Echos, Dots and the like, or through a Fire, Fire TV or TV Stick, or even third-party hardware with Alexa included. It works and reacts the same and has the same basic feature set across all of them. So while Alexa is also FAR from perfect (as the poor response accuracy scores on Loop Ventures’ test show), its consistent interface and performance helps to smooth over some of its shortcomings.
Siri doesn’t just struggle with consistency in performance. There is also a lack of consistency in features. The Watch is actually starting to catch up a bit, as you can now even get Siri voice feedback with the Series 3 and watchOS 4. However, the experience is not what it could be on the Mac, and is still completely out to lunch on the Apple TV. That begs the question, what will the experience be like on the HomePod? Will it have a full feature set when compared to the iPhone and iPad, or will it also be kneecapped in some ways? Apple needs to understand that this hurts the overall experience and discourages potential users from bothering to figure out what it can and can’t do on each hardware platform.
Breaking out of the Shell
One of the big problems with comparing Alexa and Siri right now is that they really don’t play in the same sandboxes very much. Apple’s Siri is mostly “trapped” on mobile devices currently, and was designed to be an assistant for using those devices. Alexa, on the other hand, isn’t very good on phones via Amazon;s apps. Both certainly overlap, but they are still very different in how they are designed to be used. Google’s Assistant does a better job than either at playing well in both spaces right now.
While Siri was originally developed to be conversational and to be able to understand basic context, this has broken down a bit as the service’s feature set has expanded. It works in some instances, and doesn’t in others, which just results in frustration. Even as a long-time user and a fan of some of Siri’s capabilities, this is my biggest complaint with it. While it may have been designed with the intention of being conversational, both the hardware it runs on and the way it works hold it back.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant have broken free of this mold, thanks to the fact that they both run on hardware that is dedicated to voice input and meant to provide a completely untethered experience. This is commonly referred to as “ambient computing,” and both of Siri’s main competitors have already gotten a big head start on Apple here. If you ask people who are big fans of the Alexa and Google Home platforms, the ease of use and conversational aspects of having a device that can clearly detect queries from across a room, even if there is some background noise, are huge selling points. Siri stuck on an iPhone, iPad, or even an Apple Watch can’t match that.
We already know that Apple is entering this space, thanks to the advance announcement of the HomePod last year at WWDC. What we don’t know is more troubling. First off, we don’t know exactly when it will be released, as it has already been delayed a month from its initial release window. With the rumor mill still virtually silent, it is likely to be at least another month until we get our hands on it. What is more concerning about this is why it had to be delayed in the first place, and whether it will make a difference. I know one thing, the delay is going to add to the scrutiny the HomePods will receive once it is released.
Also troubling is how well Siri will be suited to the HomePod when we do get our hands on it. Just how much has Apple improved the experience in such a short time? Will it be better than the Siri we use right now? How will the Siri we know and kinda, sorta, sometimes love (and sometimes hate) translate to an ambient computing environment? Will Apple flip a switch and release a server-side upgrade that makes a huge improvement, or will we get Siri mostly as-is? Who knows at this point.
The good thing about Apple delaying release is that they prioritized making the HomePod a better device at release over Holiday sales. I REALLY hope that this means Apple finally gets it; that they understand how important Siri is to their near-term future and the problems that users have with it. But while the delay is a positive in that sense, is an extra month or two enough to make a real difference? Since Siri is server-side technology, Apple can keep improving it after the HomePod’s release, but a rough launch will really hurt the device’s sales potential in the face of intense and entrenched competition.
Apple made it clear that the HomePod is all about Music at their WWDC announcement, and Apple Music integration is a huge part of that. Siri will be our primary interface to that experience, and by and large, it actually does a pretty good job handling music tasks right now. However, in a recent survey that showed some positives for aspects of Siri, users preferred Alexa for music search accuracy and experience.
This is a bit of a problem for Apple, as they are starting off with Siri behind Alexa for use with intelligent speakers and while their Apple Music streaming service still hasn’t closed the subscriber gap with Spotify. For the HomePod to give Apple something beyond a nice speaker for their existing loyal customers to add to their homes, they need Siri to deliver a better experience than the competition in Music. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Apple’s recent purchase of music recognition service Shazam was specifically geared toward closing these gaps. But again, how long will it take before this move makes a real impact on how Siri works day to day?
At the end of the day, Siri has far more problems than I mentioned here. Apple is far, far behind in terms of third party support that is available for Siri, and that is going to hurt them until it is addressed. The difficulty in developing apps and services to include Siri compatibility makes Alexa and Google Assistant far more attractive to programmers and hardware manufacturers alike. Apple will have to open Siri up more to remain competitive, and the longer they wait, the more it will hurt them.
Apple is also going to have to figure out how to leverage more of the user data that they have available to them. This is one of the best and most proven ways to improve Siri’s capabilities, and it fits in with Apple’s growing AI and machine learning initiatives. The good news is that the HomePod is the PERFECT device to bring in even more user data thanks to the fact that it will require more voice interaction. The key for Apple is figuring out how to use this data in ways that don’t sacrifice privacy and security.
However, those are problems that have to be solved later. Right now, Apple needs to figure out how to make Siri more consistent, both in performance and feature sets across their devices. While this ultimately matters across all of its platforms, these issues need to be addressed on the HomePod first, since it will have so much attention focused on it after release.
Apple also has to make sure their debut into ambient computing goes as smoothly as possible. I don’t think it is fair to expect rave reviews for the HomePod across the board, but Apple needs for it to demonstrate complete competency right out of the box to guarantee a smooth launch. A flood of negative reviews before launch will hurt a brand new hardware platform far more than it set the established Apple Watch back at the launch of the Series 3. I’m sure Apple knows they can’t afford that.
At the end of the day, 2018 is going to be the Year of Siri, whether Apple wants it to be or not. The only question is whether that is viewed as a positive or negative after the release of the HomePod.
What do you think the new year will bring for Siri? Do you think Apple can improve it enough to make the HomePod a success? Are you interested in the HomePod, or is it of little or no interest to you? Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.