Has Apple Dropped the Ball on Siri?

Siri Zooey Deschanel Credit: Apple
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If you’ve ever used Siri, then you’ll know she’s not exactly the sharpest tool in Cupertino’s otherwise innovative tool-shed.

Sure, Siri can handle some voice recognition tasks with ease, and Apple has repeatedly issued updates which have dramatically improved her overall capabilities — adding new features and integrating the voice assistant platform into a range of additional products from macOS computers to the HomePod smart speaker.

But when we look at Siri’s fiercest competition including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, it’s clear she simply isn’t living up to her fullest potential — and that’s a true shame, given Apple’s had over seven-years to work out the kinks and really expand Siri’s potential beyond responding to basic, quirky and comical commands.

So what happened? some might wonder. What did Apple do (or not do) that allowed Siri to ‘slip through the cracks’ like she did?

A new report published by The Information appears to answer some of those questions — but first..

A Brief Background of Siri

Prior to emerging on the scene as we know her today, the original voice recognition platform Siri evolved from was the culmination of a project spearheaded by the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center. The system was based on a voice recognition framework provided by world-renowned developer of Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, Nuance Communications.

Back in 2010, under the guidance of its late co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs, Apple acquired the Siri voice recognition platform from SRI for an estimated $200 million. Shortly thereafter, in 2011, the company announced Siri integrating for its fifth-generation iPhone 4s flagship.

Siri had so much potential, Apple assured us, promising at the time a commercially available voice recognition platform that would ultimately evolve and forever change the way users interact with their iPhones and iPads.

Though Apple has, for its part, issued updates to the Siri platform, launching SiriKit in 2016 with hopes of breathing new life into it, most users have already arrived at the realization that Siri is about as much a mixed bag as their favorite party pub mix.

What Went Wrong?

Among the main reasons Siri has floundered since her early days is due to the most unfortunate passing away of Steve Jobs, who succumbed in October 2011 to a years-long battle with Pancreatic Cancer.

Even to this very day, some would argue that Apple lost its spark of innovation — which saw the company through over a decade of unprecedented growth — once Jobs was out of the picture though it appears his passing caused more internal conflict with the Siri team than anything else.

According to the report, it was Richard Williamson — a former deputy of ousted iOS chief, Scott Forstall — who, after Job’s passing, allegedly decided that in lieu of continuously updating Siri to make her stronger, faster, and more effective, Apple would only update the platform once a year to coincide with the annual iOS update schedule we’ve grown accustomed to.

Williamson, however, in a classic case of he-said, she-said, denied allegations that he thwarted Siri development and instead cast the blame on Siri’s original creators.

“It [Siri] was slow, when it worked at all. The software was riddled with serious bugs. Those problems lie entirely with the original Siri team, certainly not me” Williamson said.

Other Problems

The Information report also points to internal conflicts at Apple which may have played their own role in Siri’s slow but apparent stifling. The company’s Siri team reported a range of issues when trying to incorporate new features and capabilities wrought by some of Apple’s most promising acquisitions — including its 2015 purchase of natural language dictation startup, VocalIQ, whose team reported difficulties working alongside existing Siri engineers.

The most alarming part of the report contends that Apple “had no plans” of integrating Siri functionality into its inherently ‘Siri-only’ HomePod smart speaker until it realized that Amazon was readying its debut Echo speaker in late 2014.

“In a sign of how unprepared Apple was to deal with a rivalry,” two Siri team members told The Information, “their team didn’t even learn about Apple’s HomePod project until 2015—after Amazon unveiled the Echo in late 2014.”

Apple’s original plans, according to one source, entailed launching HomePod without even including the voice assistant.

Regardless of its justification as to why Siri is such a half-baked mess, it’s clear that Apple has some issues to work through at the corporate level.

The company has made a number of staggeringly profitable, multi-million dollar investments over the years — including its $345 million acquisition of Israeli 3D imaging firm, PrimeSense, who’s technology is built into the company’s TrueDepth camera system. But to have dropped $200 million on a promising platform like Siri — just to let it simmer on the back-burner as the competition encroaches upon it — is so unlike the iPhone maker.

Apple will simply have to decide, therefore, what it wants Siri to ultimately become. But, just judging from some of her most ardent critics, it’s clear the company has a lot of issues on its plate to sort through.

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