Apple: When are you going to fix Siri?

Soon enough, one hopes, to save Apple’s HomePod from unflattering comparisons to Amazon’s Alexa.

John Gruber was interviewing Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi, two top Apple execs, for a live episode of his Talk Show Tuesday when someone in the standing-room-only audience shouted out the question that had been hovering over this year’s Apple developer’s conference like a buzzing drone.

“When does Siri get better?”

To my surprise, Gruber either didn’t hear the question or chose not to ask it—even after Schiller warned him not to hold anything back.

Two days later, I still don’t know how Siri will be fixed—or if will be done before the scheduled release in December of HomePod, the Siri-powered speaker system that Schiller unveiled on Monday.

But thanks to Tripp Mickle’s reporting in today’s Wall Street Journal I have a new appreciation of how much work there is to do. The story is a deep dive into, as Mickle puts it, “How Apple’s Siri Lost Her Mojo.”

A small, poignant sample:

Siri was one of Mr. Jobs’s last major new products. He became a fan in 2010 when it was launched by a small startup as a digital-assistant app for iPhones. In 30 phone calls over 45 days, he persuaded its founders to sell, according to Gary Morgenthaler, a Siri investor. He then pushed them to fine-tune a handful of features that would work flawlessly across millions of iPhones in multiple languages.

Touted as “the best feature” of the iPhone 4s in 2011 by Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, Siri converted words to text and interpreted their meaning to describe the weather or make calendar appointments and helped fuel a 73% increase in iPhone shipments in its first year. A day after the announcement, Mr. Jobs died.

Mickle names several executives who took the ball and either dropped it or ran with it in the wrong direction, according to former Apple employees. He also quotes (lamely), Eddy Cue, the Apple senior vice president whose portfolio includes Siri.

“We’re very happy with where the company is from an innovation standpoint. It’s part of our DNA.”

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  1. Fred Stein said:

    While I’m usually an unabashed fanboy, Siri suffers from first mover disadvantage. And in this case, from Apple’s closed vs. open approach. The world of AI, especially the DL, NN algorithmic work is open and shared. The top people in the field love the openness. They’re all part of global community doing amazing things. It’s really tough to get the best talent to leave that open community.
    The result is that the 2nd movers, especially Google, have better ability to understand what we say. Google’s 90% is maybe OK. Siri has to be constrained to obvious uses and even then, we have learn how to talk to Siri.
    That said, Apple tends to recover. I doubt that they are in denial internally (Maybe they were in denial a while back.). This is existential. AI, like the mouse and the touchscreen, is the new UI. But, it is much tougher to get it right.

    June 8, 2017
    • David Emery said:

      It’s possible that Siri ‘suffers’ from Apple’s privacy policies, too, where data that could be used to improve Siri is kept private/encrypted. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s something that has generally been argued against Apple’s AI endeavors.

      June 8, 2017
  2. Richard Wanderman said:

    I don’t think Siri is a disaster, it just could and should be a lot better by this point.

    I use it daily to set alarms for cooking/baking, to make phone calls in the car and to get the weather.

    It’s far from perfect but in the limited way I use it it rarely fails if I have a decent connection.

    June 8, 2017
  3. David Emery said:

    I have never actually tried Siri because ‘talking to my computer’ is not a mode I’m particularly interested in. Part of that is because I’m a pretty fast touch typist, part of that is familiarity with “older” UI modalities.

    But I’m wondering if we’re really heading to a world where everyone is doing work by talking to their computers…. (and that would make many offices even more noisy than they are now.)

    June 9, 2017
    • Jonathan Mackenzie said:

      Are you a touch typist on your phone? I’m not. (But some of my young employees clearly are.)

      I was having a discussion about home heating oil the other day when a disagreement about the population of the state came up. I pulled my phone from my pocket, held the home button and said, “What’s the population of Vermont?”

      Siri instantly announced for all those present, “The population of Vermont is about 626,000 people.”

      I can’t think of a quicker and more convenient way that issue could have been resolved. No typing. No passing around the phone to say, “See?”

      Voice UI has obvious drawbacks, but so do all forms of input (typing with a mouse is an excruciating experience). It will be the right tool for some jobs in ways we will get accustomed to. As Siri improves, these use cases will expand dramatically. But that doesn’t mean we will dictate everything we do.

      You don’t want to have to speak to your computer all day, but imagine that instead of sending an email attachment you could simply say, “Siri, send Bob the maintenance report, but leave out the Walker facility and add the graph with the q3 projections.” When voice allows us to reach into our files and pull out data that we want, it’s speed benefits will become clear enough.

      June 9, 2017
      • Richard Wanderman said:

        I am a touch typist, both on a “regular” Macintosh keyboard and on my iPhone (thumbs) and your use-case for Siri is one I use all the time. It doesn’t always work quite as well in all cases like “what is the population of Vermont”; it sometimes shows a Wikipedia page. In the early days it was doing a lot more showing of web pages and that turned many people off.

        But, it’s improved considerably over the years and as it has, I’ve used it more and more. In limited domains (growing) and with a decent connection its quite impressive.

        Compare that with Alexa which has even more limited domains and tighter controls. Less useful but more accurate in its limited domains. So, it gets used more.

        Where Apple made a mistake which they are now digging out of is to introduce Siri as a general purpose voice assistant. Had they done what Amazon is doing I think they’d have had better early adoption (limited use case, less failure).

        But, where Apple is going is the right place to go: a general purpose voice assistant available on any Apple device.

        If one has a bluetooth-equipped vehicle that makes nice with the iPhone Siri is even more useful and I’ve been using it in my truck for a year now and now I can legally and safely take and make calls on the road. Brilliant.

        June 10, 2017
      • David Emery said:

        I strongly avoid typing on my phone, just because I’m not a ‘touch typist’ on it. I guess that puts me in the minority. I find the iPhone keyboard -particularly frustrating- because (unlike my old Palm Pilot) it will not learn! I make the same “off by 1/32” mistakes consistently.

        But the idea of sitting on public transportation, with everyone talking to their devices, sure sounds like dystopia rather than utopia to me. (And I wonder just how well it will work with all that background noise, everyone saying ‘hey Siri’ all the time.)

        June 10, 2017
  4. Bill May said:

    I think there are many ways in which Siri falls short. I do not understand how a company so wealthy can let a key technology go so long without improvement (of course this is the same company that went over 5 years without a major improvement in the MacBook Pro).
    For me, the thing that drives me batty is the way each query in considered in isolation. If I ask a question and Siri gets one word wrong (throwing off the query), you cannot tell Siri that you meant “x” and not “y”. When an individual is incapable of connecting two related questions, there is absolutely no learning possible.
    For this persistent flaw, I think she should be called “Dory” instead of “Siri.”
    But as to when should Siri be fixed– every single day they should be making improvements. Anything less is a betrayal of customers paying these huge profit margins.

    June 13, 2017

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