The State of Siri in 2016: It’s bigger than you think

How is Apple’s Siri doing in 2016: what exactly do we mean by Siri, where’s it weak, and where’s the opportunity for Apple to capitalize on its evident success thus far?

Let’s look at what it is (because it often gets confusing), including how far its tentacles reach into Apple’s ecosystem, and how holy-shit-balls important it is to Apple’s long term success.

Understandably, people often think of Siri as the smooth talking personal assistant on their iPhone, always at the ready to provide the sassy answers to your every question.

However, its reach and importance is far greater: it’s on every Apple device, it combines many technologies, and is the emerging vital user interface to dozens of Apple core services and third-party partnerships.

Here’s a diagram I made to help you see the whole:

So it’s on iOS (iPhone, iPad), macOS (formerly OS X, great name change), watchOS (Apple Watch) and tvOS (Apple TV).

It’s worth re-iterating that: if Apple sells it, Siri now runs on it—or at least will, when macOS Sierra launches in the fall.

And you activate it in a surprising range of ways, when you think about it: from holding home buttons, to clicking menu bar icons, to pressing buttons on your TV remote. (Saying “Hey Siri” only works on iOS and watchOS at present.) Once active, as you know, it mostly takes over what you’re doing and looking at. Only on macOS is it less intrusive, showing up in an expanding popup window.

Now it gets interesting. Because Siri is all-singing, all-dancing. What we call ‘Siri’ has several important parts, many of which are entire technologies and topics in themselves:

  • The speech recognition and parsing technology: basically, for turning your voice into text, and understanding the difference between ‘Tennessee’ and ‘tennis, see?’.
  • The interpretation of your intent: what you mean by what you say. What are you actually wanting Siri to do?
  • All the actions it can then take, from telling you the distance to the sun, to showing walking directions to the nearest café, to using a third-party service to book a table at your favourite Italian restaurant tomorrow night. Apple has many partnerships in place to give Siri its power.
  • The interface you see when you activate it and to use it: that dancing, colourful sound wave, the text it thinks you’ve said, and the results it displays (which are getting richer all the time).

And then there’s parts of Siri that get used in non-Siri-branded ways, such as the dictation feature you use on your iPhone by touching the small microphone button when the keyboard is shown, or using some of that Siri intelligence in the search feature on your iPhone home screen (by swiping down in the middle of the home screen, in case that’s new to you).

So, it’s complex and everywhere. And what should be apparent to you, if only from the media buzz, is that Siri is—or at least, should be—front and center in Apple’s strategy.

Competitors are numerous, from Amazon’s Alexa to some ex-Siri team members’ newly announced Viv. They’re no dummies: this is a race you want to be in.

And that’s because: it’s voice. It’s a no-brainer. A voice-driven interface has obvious benefits in multiple situations in our everyday lives:

  • It’s far quicker to speak than use a touch or mouse/keyboard interface. For example, I can say “Set a timer for 15 minutes” far quicker than I can unlock my phone, find and open the clock app, switch to the timer view, set it to 15 minutes, and then press start. Everyone loves to save time.
  • It’s extremely convenient in many situations. I can dictate a message while I’m running. I can use the always-on “Hey Siri” feature to set that 15-minute timer without coating my iPhone in mid-cooking-process flour.
  • It’s legally and morally important when, y’know, driving your car.
  • It’s far more accessible for anyone with physical disabilities that prevent them easily using a touch interface or even a customised desktop setup.
  • Last but not least, it’s as natural and friendly as it gets. Speaking in flowing sentences is easy, fluid, and requires zero translation of our desires into ‘computer actions’. And there’s a reason that every voice interface demo involves some question about the weather: because weather chit chat is part of our everyday. It’s friendly, safe and known.

So, with Siri, Apple’s got it made, they’re ready to ride the wave. Right?

Well, mostly. The foundations are strong, and the direction is good. Some of the competitors are biting off more than they can chew. But there’s plenty of risk, and Apple has some real weak areas in that diagram I showed you above, some basics they need to get right tout de suite.

Where are those weaknesses, and what should Apple be doing next from the perspective of Siri experience? What can make Siri truly incredible, almost indispensable?

That’s… for another article. Watch this space.