Google previewed its new voice assistant, the generically named Google Assistant, at its I/O developers conference on Wednesday, and while the assistant hasn’t actually launched yet, its features made Siri’s lack of functionality all the more obvious. Apple’s iOS assistant now lags so far behind not only Google, but Amazon’s Alexa, intelligent iOS apps like Hound, and new technology from Siri’s creators, that it’s unclear if Apple has any interest in catching up.
Rumor has it that Siri is coming to the Mac, an announcement reportedly scheduled for Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on June 13. After hearing what Google Assistant has in store and seeing what Siri’s creators are working on with Viv, it’s obvious that Siri needs more than just an expanded platform. Apple’s assistant needs to be more personalized to be useful, but it seems that the company is reticent to make that leap.
Privacy vs. personalization
Unlike Google, Facebook, and other tech companies that make money from advertising, Apple doesn’t collect your personal data because it doesn’t need to. It makes money by selling you hardware and getting you to sign up for monthly subscription services like iCloud storage and Apple Music, among other revenue generators. That means most everything about you is stored on the device, which makes it harder for Apple to access the information it would need for Siri to serve up tailored information. Harder, but not impossible. My credit card information is stored in Apple Pay and I have location services turned on, so why can’t Siri order an Uber for me or buy movie tickets from my nearest theater?
It’s a problem that could be solved with a Siri API for app developers, but according to a recent Reuters report, Apple’s Siri shortcomings can be attributed to the company’s stance on privacy.
The company has a trio of so-called “privacy czars” who vet every decision, even inspecting lines of code that might violate laws or company standards. When Apple bought Siri five years ago, it was decided that data on what you ask Siri would be stored separately from personal data, so Siri lacks a lot of the knowledge about you that it would need to be a truly useful assistant.
Siri also needs to get better at answering follow-up questions. I tried to replicate the Google Assistant demo by asking who directed The Revenant. Siri served up the correct answer (Alejandro González Iñárritu), but when I followed up with, “Show me his awards,” the assistant responded with a non-answer: “Here’s The Revenant.” There were no awards listed. Siri usually reverts to a web search for questions it doesn’t know the answers to, and now I’ve come to expect that if I want anything more than a timer set or the weather forecast, I’ll have to look it up myself.
Siri has seen small improvements over the years. The assistant is hugely helpful on the fourth-gen Apple TV and in Apple Music, and iOS 9 included a Siri search API for deep-linking. And Siri is always on for iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and SE users, so you can summon help without pressing any buttons. Those are incremental steps forward, but what’s needed is a giant leap. Engineers in Cupertino may be working right now on a Siri reboot to rival Google and Amazon’s assistants, and maybe even an Apple version of a voice-activated hub like Google Home or Amazon Echo. If they’re not, Apple needs to rethink its Siri strategy.