Apple, in its modern incarnation, isn’t known for beating competitors to market. In fact, Apple is often the last company to drop a product in a respective category; but when it does, Apple blows everyone away with a far superior product and form factor (does the iPod or iPhone ring any bells?).
For whatever reason, Siri’s journey is playing out in reverse.
Apple certainly wasn’t the first company to develop a voice-based, digital interface with computers. Nor were they the first to develop personal assistant skills into that interface. But, Siri’s cameo appearance on the iPhone 4S in October of 2011 vaulted Apple to the forefront of the digital assistant market in both breadth and scope — no other speech interface has a critical mass quite like the iPhone commanded. It took the other major players in the market years to catch on: Amazon’s Alexa came along in 2014 as part of the Echo speaker system, and Google’s unimaginatively named “Google Assistant” only showed up last summer. But, happily ensconced in its cocoon of supremacy, Apple got complacent while Google and Amazon got hungry.
And got to work.
“The situation is that Google and Amazon are winning the race for virtual personal assistants,” Brian Blau said to Wired; he tracks consumer technology at Gartner. “Apple hasn’t improved to stay as competitive as it needs to be.”
It’s not a huge shock that Amazon and Google were well prepared to take the mantle from Apple in this field — while Apple has made some overtures into machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence, Amazon and Google have been banging on that door — hard — for years now. They’re building entire business units focused entirely on the nascent field, which invariably has a direct and casual impact on the speed and quality of voice assistants.
That commitment to the voice assistant is readily apparent across Google’s recently released new product line: “Google Assistant was positioned as central to nearly all products the company unveiled: wireless earphones; two new smartphones; two new home speakers; and a laptop computer,” Tom Simonite wrote for Wired. “People should be able to interact with computing in a natural and seamless way,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on stage at the event.
What’s more, Google also released features neither Siri nor Alexa can boast: “The new Google Home speakers can be configured to recognize different people from the sounds of their voices. Say “Hey Google, call mom,” and the device knows to use your contacts to phone your mother, not your mother-in-law,” wrote Simonite.
Siri seems like a feature to most of the systems it’s installed on, whereas Alexa and Assistant are core to the form factor of their respective platforms. Apple’s HomePod is positioned more as a reinvention of the home music system, as opposed to a new, multifunctional home helper.
Google and Amazon have both opened their platforms to third-party developers, with Alexa’s ‘Skills’ market topping 25,000 unique functions [we’re proud to say we’ve put (more than) a couple there ourselves]. Apple did that with the App Store, and made the iPhone and iOS market dominant — their refusal to do so with Siri could lead to a massive missed opportunity as Google and Amazon snatch up market share with superior products with more functionality.
While it’s not a direct comparison, a recent study shows just how far Apple is falling behind its competition — “An April study by marketer Stone Temple that asked 5,000 general knowledge questions to virtual assistants reported that Google’s got 91 percent correct, compared to Alexa’s 87 percent, and Siri’s 62 percent.”
Apple has disputed results that like that in the past, claiming, “we didn’t engineer this thing to be Trivial Pursuit!” But the shortcoming underlies a state of affairs in which Amazon and Google have made their vocal assistant platforms central to their strategy and development, while Apple has not.
That’s not to say Apple isn’t working diligently on artificial intelligence and Siri specifically, but it isn’t with the verve and fervor seen by its closest competitors. It might turn out that voice interfacing isn’t all that important in our collective future, but it would seem the other biggest players in the field think otherwise. And as such, it might do Apple some good to heed the shifting winds and double down on what could just be the U/I of the future.