Theoretical improvements: The status of Siri in iOS 12

By

The iPhone's home button could be going away.
Siri should be a lot smarter.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

WWDC 2018 bug Cult of Mac In the battle of digital voice assistants, people often mock Siri for lagging behind competing products from Amazon and Google. During Monday’s WWDC 2018 keynote, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, glossed over those failings, calling Siri the “world’s most-used digital assistant.”

What he neglected to mention was the increasing frustration of Siri users expecting more from a voice assistant. From simple requests returning inaccurate results to the inability to performthat he compound actions, Siri was in desperate need of attention going into WWDC. But will the Siri upgrades in iOS 12 do the trick?

As people get more comfortable using voice commands — thanks to Siri, but also to increasingly popular smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home — nailing the user experience becomes more important than ever. In fact, Siri’s lack of smarts became one of the chief knocks on Apple’s HomePod.

Siri Shortcuts coming in iOS 12

True to form, Apple opted to address concerns about Siri’s performance by leveraging third-party developers. In apps updated for iOS 12, developers can add Siri triggers for performing various actions. A simple voice command could order a coffee at a specific time, start a workout at a specific place, or serve up sports scores for your favorite teams.

To take things a step further, users also will be able to build their own compound actions through Apple’s new Shortcuts app.

Built on the foundation of the Workflow app, which Apple acquired in early 2017, the Shortcuts app will allow users to easily build multistep processes for use with Siri. Once created, saying a single command can trigger the assistant to run through multiple steps, providing information or performing actions along the way.

Apple announces Siri Shortcuts at WWDC 2018
Siri Shortcuts could make Siri a little more useful.
Photo: Apple

By leveraging third-party apps and Shortcuts, Apple is making it easier for Siri to integrate with the things users want most, like quick access to their most important apps and information.

What it means for users when iOS 12 ships, though, may be a different story.

The larger concern with Siri

Gaining quick access to your travel plans though Kayak, or a faster way to order a coffee from Starbucks, seems great. However, these new capabilities don’t address the larger problems with Siri.

Google and Amazon already shipped updates to their assistants to allow for true, ad hoc compound commands (e.g., “Set a timer for 10 minutes and add eggs to my grocery list”). However, Siri in iOS 12 will rely mostly on prebuilt shortcuts to perform multiple actions at once.

Add to that the still-limited subset of SiriKit Intents that work with the platform, and it becomes clear that Apple’s assistant remains far behind the competition.

Want to watch a movie on Apple TV? You can’t do it from your iPhone with Siri. Need to add multiple items to a shopping list? You’ll need to say them one at a time. Want to listen to a Spotify playlist? Siri can’t help with that, either.

With both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, you can control playback on a different device, perform multiple actions with a single command, or choose the music service (or services) you prefer (although Alexa still doesn’t play nice with Apple Music).

Siri still can’t sweat the simple stuff

For some simpler commands, Siri also feels incomplete. Variations in phrasing often cause the assistant to fail at basic tasks. Asking for information is still a mixed bag. Siri frequently offers to “search the web for that” instead of providing useful feedback.

Even with the updates in iOS 12, it’s clear that Siri needs more than app-based actions and prebuilt routines. Apple is addressing some Siri shortcomings. However, it remains to be seen whether these upgrades will be enough to make Siri more competitive.

Do the Siri additions showcased at WWDC 2018 look nice? Absolutely. But it seems like the Siri team at Apple is only scratching the surface of a larger problem. Year after year, we hope that Siri will get the boost it needs to become truly great. Even with all the iOS updates coming 2018, we may be left once again hoping for next year.