6 things Apple should do to fix Siri

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Siri display
"I don't have these features. Would you like me to search the web for you?"
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Siri kind of sucks, despite its increasingly prominent role in the Apple ecosystem.

With the general verdict on the HomePod being “great speaker, shame about Siri,” what does Apple need to do in order to catch up with its rivals? Here are six Siri improvements we’d love to see Apple implement as soon as possible.

How to fix Siri

Apple deserves all the credit in the world for popularizing the type of AI assistants that now make smart speakers a hot commodity. When Siri arrived on the iPhone 4s back in 2011, it delivered on a dream that Apple had been talking about since way back in the 1980s.

The ability to speak with your phone and get it to carry out tasks was proof positive that we were living in the future … although it didn’t always work quite as well as planned.

In the years since, Siri has clearly fallen behind its similar products. Siri might avoid the creepiness of Google or Amazon’s AI assistants (in terms of trying to monetize your data). But Siri doesn’t work nearly as well as its competitors. For most users, that’s what matters.

Here’s what Apple should add to make Siri competitive.

Multi-user support

This Siri fix is No. 1 with a bullet. Right now, the only way Siri knows that you are, well, you is because you are speaking to it on your Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad or Mac.

That’s a fairly safe assumption to make with the Apple Watch or iPhone, because few people share such devices between multiple users. It’s a reasonable assumption to make on a Mac because individual users can have different profiles. But it’s less reasonable on an iPad or HomePod because these are, in most cases, devices used by multiple people in a home.

Supporting multiple users isn’t just crucial for making an AI assistant feel like it knows us and can send customized news reports and suggestions. It’s also a massive security liability if you want a smart speaker to read emails and WhatsApp messages, reveal plans for the day, or transfer money.

Both Alexa and Google Home handle this very well. The lack of such a feature on HomePod makes Siri feel like a major laggard.

Better at context and trivia

Apple gets weirdly defensive when people point out that Siri isn’t always great at answering questions. Last year, Apple marketing VP Greg Joswiak told Wired, “We didn’t engineer this thing to be Trivial Pursuit!”

It’s fair for Apple to point out that it’s more concerned with getting the basics right than pulling off gimmicky trivia feats that users are unlikely to use more than once.

With that said, the first thing people typically do when I introduce them to a smart AI assistant is to try to outwit it with a complex query. (This apparently held true for Steve Jobs as well. His first question to Siri was, “Are you a man or a woman?”)

Currently, Google is far and away the leader when it comes to answering complex, context-based questions. For most people, making HomePod a smarter speaker is far more important than, for instance, giving Siri a more human-sounding voice.

The ability to recognize terms based on context is also crucial. As is knowing that you are talking about separate items if you ask to make a list of “bread, vegetables, milk” (OK, “chips, cookies, milkshake). Come on Siri, you can do better!

Music-finding abilities

Apple wants Siri to be your guide to finding music to play on HomePod. When this tech works as planned, it feels like magic. But it doesn’t always work with Siri.

In contrast, Google Assistant lets you sing the lines of a song and, even if your singing is sub-karaoke, it will recognize it.

Siri often struggles with basic spoken titles or artist names. Sure, it works 70 percent of the time (that’s a rough estimate) — but there are plenty of technologies we’d ditch if they malfunctioned 3 out of every 10 uses.

Language translation

Siri is getting better at language translation, but it remains limited. Right now, it can translate from English to French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish.

That’s not bad, but there are weaknesses. For example, translations don’t work with British English. Nor do they work in the other direction (i.e. Mandarin back to English). And Siri’s lack of smarts mean it often gets lost unless you break down your translation query into smaller chunks.

Apple wants Siri to be the interface of the future.
Apple wants Siri to be the interface of the future.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Mad skills, yo!

Apple wants to trap you in its ecosystem. So, blocking easy HomePod access to competing streaming music services like Spotify in favor of Apple Music is annoying but understandable.

But Apple really could do better at integrating Siri with more third-party apps. Apple added third-party support to Siri in 2016, but it hasn’t taken off as quickly as many would like. While Siri can bring up thumbnails of YouTube videos, hail rides on Uber, and search for images on Pinterest, in many other cases it’s not so adept.

In some cases, Siri is actively getting worse. For instance, you can no longer use Siri to update Facebook or send a tweet. Part of the reason may be Apple’s insistence on controlling which app categories can use SiriKit.

Whatever the reason, Siri’s number of third-party “skills” remains considerably lower than Amazon’s Alexa, which currently stands at more than 25,000 (and growing every day).

Setting multiple timers

Compared to some of the other tasks on this list, setting multiple timers sounds like small potatoes. Of all of these Siri fixes, it’s the easiest for Apple to pull off. In fact, I suspect Apple will make this addition in the very near future.

However, timers are important. They are one of the things I use smart devices for the most. If you’re cooking, setting different timers for different things is crucial. Being able to name the timers (“set a 10-minute timer for potatoes and 15 minutes for fish”) is even handier.

Again, Google Assistant and Alexa can do this flawlessly. Siri can’t. If Siri isn’t supposed to be a computational Trivial Pursuit, it should at least be able to perform basic tasks really well. Right now it can’t.

(And don’t even try and defend it by pointing out that you can set one timer on each of your devices!)

Are we being too hard on Siri?

We love Apple (pretty obvious, really!). We want to love Siri. But, boy, it’s hard sometimes! The changes we’ve listed above aren’t comprehensive. Nor would they make Siri the obvious front-runner for AI assistants, since most of these features are already offered by rivals.

But they would make Siri more usable, and prove that Apple’s capable of competing in this area. And, hey, if Apple can nail Siri, that would make the HomePod a whole lot more compelling as a device.

What do you think? Are we being too tough on Siri? Not tough enough? What changes would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below.