Siri has gone from being a competitive differentiator for Apple to nearly its opposite, a product seen by many as falling behind its rivals. Regardless of the empirical truth, it’s the widely-held view among tech industry insiders who help shape popular opinion.
An article in the The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) provides an extensive look at how Siri went from market leader to its position as perceived laggard. The article suggests internal cultural issues and employee departures have slowed improvement of the virtual assistant:
In the years since [Siri was acquired], former Siri team members say, progress has been slowed by a failure to set ambitious goals, shifting strategies and a culture that prioritizes user privacy — making it difficult to personalize and improve the product. The project also has suffered from the departures of key team members, some of whom went to competitors.
Apple bought Siri in 2010. It was initially a ground-breaking addition to the iPhone. Recognizing the strategic importance of virtual assistants to the future of (conversational) search, Google enhanced its voice search capabilities and developed comparable functionality for Android devices. Just this past month it brought a specialized Google Assistant app to the iPhone to compete directly with Siri on Apple’s flagship device.
Beyond this, the WSJ reports that Apple was “caught off guard” by the Amazon Echo (as was Google). It also says that Apple “spent years developing” the just-introduced smart speaker, the HomePod. That account contradicts the popular view that Apple developed the HomePod in response to the Echo.
Recent studies have generally found Google’s Assistant to be the top performer vs. its rivals. However, Siri has done well in some studies, and so have Amazon’s Alexa and Cortana.
The WSJ piece suggests that Apple’s narrow focus on the iPhone, a lack of vision and some level of complacency have cost the company “its innovation edge,” which it enjoyed early on with Siri. However, a Loup Ventures study released in April had more positive assessment of Siri’s competitiveness:
Siri performed well across the board, and ultimately came in second place in our assessment. Siri’s ability to interpret user commands accurately sets it apart from the others. Command is an important category for Apple, as it continues to make a push into homes with its HomeKit. By continuing to outperform Google Assistant, Siri offers the best connection between a user’s mobile life and home life, which Amazon will struggle to do without an integrated smartphone platform.
As I wrote in January, Apple helped mainstream virtual assistants. Seven years ago, it was a novelty feature. Now, with consumers using voice to interact with devices more frequently, “nice to have” has become “must have.”
Accordingly, a weaker Siri and a stronger Google Assistant (or Amazon Alexa) will ultimately impact iPhone sales and Apple’s larger ecosystem strategy. The company has got to see and invest much more in Siri as a core utility if it wants to remain competitive.