Why Apple Has GOT to Fix Siri

Why Apple Has GOT to Fix Siri

Siri, Apple’s voice-based virtual assistant is a mixed bag of good things and bad. And Siri faces an increasing competition in the market, especially from Google.

I believe Siri is probably the single most important feature Apple offers for three future Apple devices. In fact, I think Apple is betting the entire company on Siri.

And that’s why they’ve got to fix it. 

What’s Wrong with Siri? 

To say that Siri isn’t ready for prime time shouldn’t be controversial. Apple calls it a “beta,” which nowadays is Silicon Valley-speak for “this product is not ready for prime time but we want to make money from it anyway.”

Siri is unreliable. The “hit rate” for queries, at least for me, borders on 60%. People I know who have much higher success rates have been subtly “trained” by Siri to not ask certain things.

The inability of Siri to understand clear, standard requests is bad enough. But oftentimes, you get the old “Sorry, I’m having trouble connecting to the network” response.

And even when Siri understands and the server is available, the response lag is far too high.

When Siri was first launched more than a year ago, most of us didn’t have any benchmark or comparison by which to judge Siri’s performance. But earlier this month, Google launched the free Google Voice Search for iOS, and it blows Siri away on performance.

In addition to lackluster performance, Siri also has trouble understanding the majority of major languages, and also many foreign language accents in English. Job boards around the world have spotted listings for engineering interns fluent in various languages for helping to develop Siri, so at least Apple is working on it.

Plus, it’s hard for developers to use Siri for their-party applications. And those who do simply demonstrate how great it would be for Apple to make it easier.

It would be ideal, obviously, for Siri to be able to control all the apps on any device it’s installed on. Today, Siri can’t even control the built-in Apple apps, for the most part.

What’s Right With Siri

Despite Siri’s flaws, Siri does have some wonderful qualities. Siri’s basic approach to chit-chatty, joke-cracking, human like responses is amazing — when it works.

Siri has personality, which is something Google’s voice assistant lacks and which will be an absolutely requirement for the warm-and-fuzzy, human-like virtual assistants of tomorrow.

Plus, Siri is available on iOS devices with the push (and holding) of the Home button.

Early builds of the future OS X 10.9 show Siri integration, so it’s possible that the next OS X update will come with Siri.

Why Apple Needs to Fix Siri

Siri is a nice addition to iOS, and it improves the user experience, especially on iPhone. But it’s not necessary.

However, I believe three future products will absolutely require robust, reliable, high-performance Siri functionality, or those products will fail.

(Note that none of these future products have been announced by Apple. This is speculation.

1. Apple’s TV set. There’s absolutely no reason for Apple to ship a TV that’s comparable to existing TVs. The only reason to make a TV is to transform the experience of using a giant screen in the living room using something unique to Apple.

I expect Apple to differentiate its TV with three things: 1) iCloud; 2) iTunes; and 3) Siri.

Of these, Siri is the most important one for transforming the experience. Instead of searching for a movie on Netflix, not finding it, then toggling over to iTunes to search for it, as you have to do now, Apple’s TV will probably have us simply saying (into the remote): I want to watch “Shawshank Redemption yet again.” Siri will figure out where to grab it, and just start playing it.

Once the movie is running, you’ll be able to pause, watch something else, fast forward and do other controls just by talking in plain language to Siri.

Without Siri, Apple’s TV product would probably flop, and would be criticized as unnecessary.

2. Apple’s wristwatch. All the major companies, including Google and Microsoft, are working on “wearable” devices. And many minor companies are working on them, too.

I think Apple will ship a wearable device within the next two years, and that device will be worn on the wrist, rather than the face, simply because a wristwatch device will be more palatable and acceptable to the majority of consumers.

Apple saw the promise of and enthusiasm for the use of the old iPod Nano as a wristwatch, and killed it all with the new Nano.

Why? Because Apple knows you only get one shot to train the masses on how to use a new technology. They want everybody to use Apple wristwatches when the real one ships.

I believe the killer feature for Apple’s upcoming wristwatch will be Siri. The watch will pair with your nearby iOS device via Bluetooth 4.0. You’ll talk to the watch, the watch will talk to the phone, the phone will talk to the Siri Servers. I would expect you to be able to control music, or the nearby Apple TV with this watch, and also do the kinds of searches you can now do with Siri directly on an iPhone.

3. Apple’s desktop touch tablet. I’ve been excited about the possibilities for an iPad-like, giant-screen touch-based desktop since 2006. But whenever I bring it up, my enthusiasm is drowned out by a chorus of negativity about “gorilla arm” and about the unacceptability of on-screen keyboards as a substitute for physical ones.

But what I believe these critics are missing is the future centrality of Siri and other voice-based command and dictation software.

You won’t get “gorilla arm,” because you won’t do much with your hands. You’ll talk, and the desktop will do your bidding, for the most part.

And you won’t type much, because you’ll just dictate emails, papers and so on. (Plus, physical keyboards will be created that will sit right on the screen.)

Voice command and dictation — i.e Siri for OS X — is the feature that will make desktop touch Macs thrilling and fun to use.

Siri was an awesome product when it first came out. But it hasn’t evolved fast enough to thrill anymore.

Apple can’t survive forever simply improving existing product lines. They’ve got to grow new ones. And the most likely new platforms — the watch, the TV and the touch desktop — will absolutely require a much better, more reliable and more capable version of Siri if the next generation of Apple products are to succeed.

(Image courtesy of Lipson)

  • defactomonkey

    The other day I asked…

    “Where is the nearest river?”
    Siri’s response was, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘Where is the nearest river?’ Would you like me to search the web?”

    Fix Siri!

  • z0mki

    When I ask Siri to connect me to businesses in my city, she only pulls up listings in the surrounding cities…WTF?!

  • site7000

    I had the exact same thought when the new iPod Nano came out: they killed the wristband market because they’re planning their own watch. Coming next Christmas!

  • GrangerFX

    Siri has the potential make complex tasks easy. Instead of a complicated user interface with many levels of pages and many buttons and sliders to do what you want, you could simply tell Siri what to do. For example “When I get in range of my home WiFi, turn off cellular data” or “Set the screen brightness to 50% when I am using the Remote app.” Right now you can’t even do the same functions you can in the Settings app. Also Apple makes a big deal about accessibility but nothing is more accessible for a blind user than Siri. Why not use it for everything instead of forcing them to figure out which buttons they are pressing on the screen they can’t see?

    I have to say though, I am really impressed with Siri. Every time I use it, it seems like Science Fiction to me. I use it to create reminders and add items to my schedule. When it works, getting directions to some location is super easy with Siri. It is much easier than typing it in (replacing a complex UI with easy to use voice commands). I just wish it could recognize more location names.

  • DRWAM

    Well some other examples of speech recognition failures is my 2012 BMW X5, which cannot get names in my address book correct and cannot input a correct address, although they advertise it. It sucks and the vehicle costs $57,000 more than any iDevice. Then there’s VR by Nuance and GE for radiologists which also cannot get words correct, even when you train it. Now, those systems cost over $200,000 for each site. I’m not excusing SIRI’s errors, but just saying that they all stink. Believe it or not, when in my car, I use SIRI to connect to my contacts, so as soon as it connect, the BT is used automatically. BMW would even get close to the names in my address book, even though I try to carefully pronounce/annunciate it. It fails 100% while SIRI gets it right almost all the time.

  • hanhothi

    As usual, an insightful blog. You don’t like to pander to the iSheep on CoM do you!

    I was disappointed when the iWatch was not released this time. I like the new nano though and may buy one to replace my 4th Gen because I find the old scroll wheel frustrating after getting used to my iPhone, and I want the BlueTooth link to my speakers.

    On the iWatch issue there is I’mWatch, but it does not seem to integrate well with the iPhone, and loads of people are complaining about not getting it delivered even years after they have payed for it. Not sure about that company, they could well go bust and you lose your money. They don’t have a good reputation, and I don’t trust them with my dosh.

    So hurry up and release the iWatch Apple!

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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