Apple's Siri took an early lead the voice-computing market, but lost much of its momentum to Amazon's Alexa. With some major updates planned for Siri this fall, Apple could get itself back in the race.
Apple may be about to transform Siri from being the butt of numerous jokes into the capable, powerful, and competent digital assistant it's long promised.
If Apple can pull it off, the move may help the company re-establish itself as one of the leaders in fast-growing market for voice-based computing and possibly even allow it to leapfrog Amazon's Alexa, which is at the heart of its widely popular Echo smart speakers.
Apple unveiled its effort to overhaul Siri at its WWDC developer conference Monday. As part of the next version of iOS, the software that underlies the iPhone and iPad, Siri will get a host of new features.
It will be able to answer new queries, such as "How much caffeine is in coffee?" Apple promises it will also better recognize users' habits and anticipate their needs. If a user orders the same coffee every day through a particular app, Siri will start suggesting the order through a lock-screen notification, allowing the user to place the order with one tap, without having to open the app.
Additionally, Siri will be able to tackle multiple tasks in response to a single command. For example, users will be able to customize the assistant so that when they say, "heading home," Siri will give them directions to their house in Maps, send a text message to their spouses letting them know they're on the way, and adjust their thermostat — all without having to say anything else.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Siri will at long last be able to potentially work with each and every app in Apple's App Store. Apple is finally opening up the digital assistant so that any and all developers can build support for it into their apps.
In the past, you could use Siri to launch any app you had on your device, but you could only use it to perform particular actions in a handful of different types of apps. You could ask Siri to request an Uber ride or to send a message to one of your friends through WhatsApp, but you couldn't use it to send a tweet or to order your groceries.
Once Apple launches iOS 12 this fall, you'll likely be able to do that. App developers will be able to add a button to their apps that will let customers use Siri to do common functions. Better yet, users will be able to designate their own voice commands to trigger those common functions.
So, if you want to be able to see your travel itinerary in Kayak, say, you might be able to just say "itinerary," and Siri will display it.
"We wanted to make Siri do much more for you," Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, said in during the company's keynote presentation at WWDC.
That feature could give Apple a huge edge over Amazon and Google in the voice assistant market. Right now, the number of apps, or skills, that are available for Alexa numbers in the tens of thousands, and for Assistant considerably less than that. But there are millions of apps available for the the iPhone and iPad. If developers start adding Siri capabilities to them, the number of Siri-capable apps could soon outnumber those for Alexa and Assistant by far.
As we saw in the early days of the smartphone market, the number of apps available is a crude measure of how useful or capable a device can be. A big part of the reason why the iPhone and Android-based devices caught on with consumers is because they had far more available apps — and consumers could do far more things with those phones — than with BlackBerry devices or gadgets running Microsoft's Windows Phone.
But the new capabilities could also allow Siri to finally fulfill its potential — and that of voice assistants more broadly.
Since it debuted in 2010, Apple's voice assistant has offered the promise of being a new way to interact with our devices. Instead of having to launch and navigate within apps to get the information we needed or take particular actions, we could just speak a simple command to our phones. Indeed, it heralded a coming age where we would interact with computers using only our voice.
In practice, Siri has never lived up to that promise. Instead, it's been buggy and far too limited, only able to respond to a select number of questions or commands — and only then when it understood accurately what users were saying.
I've repeatedly found myself yelling at Siri when it didn't understand me when I asked it to call my sister or to play a particular song. And I know I'm not alone in my frustration. Even my mother, someone who rarely uses such terms, says Siri "sucks."
According to Federighi, Siri is the most widely used digital assistant around the world, thanks in large part to the fact that it's available on basically all of the more than a billion iOS devices currently in circulation. And despite the widespread criticism of Siri, Apple has been steadily improving the system and giving it new capabilities.
But Apple has clearly lost the momentum and its early lead when it comes to voice computing. The smart speaker market is one of the fastest growing areas of consumer electronics, and Amazon's Echo line, which is powered by Alexa, dominates it. Developers have been rushing to create skills for Alexa, and Amazon has been signing deals with multiple companies to allow them to build its voice assistant into everything from cars to refrigerators.
Meanwhile, early reports indicate that Apple's HomePod smart speaker, which features Siri, has seen disappointing sales since the company released it earlier this year. And a report last year indicated consumer usage of Siri was falling rapidly.
Apple, however, still has lots of potential in the voice market. Siri's already available on far more devices than Alexa or Assistant — including on the device that most people carry with them at all times, their phone. It almost certainly has more name recognition too. And the growing concern among consumers about privacy could boost Siri also. Apple generally collects less data on its users than other tech giants. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon both in recent months have gotten black eyes over privacy snafus with their smart speakers.
Add in Siri's new capabilities, which Apple said would head to the HomePod and Apple Watch as well, and the iPhone maker could soon be right back in the thick of things in voice computing.
We'll soon see. As a long-time and long frustrated Siri user, I'm hoping that the voice assistant's renewed promise is more than just talk.