For many, Siri was the first voice-activated assistant they ever used — when it launched back in 2011, there was nothing else like it.
The road to that launch, incidentally, was reportedly quite dramatic. According to The Information, and based on interviews with over a dozen former Apple employees and many who worked on the product (all speaking anonymously), it was rushed out the door a little too soon — and, thus, never quite lived up to the potential envisioned for it. The report said the early Siri team had grand visions that Siri would lead to "an App Store for AI" but, of course, it never happened that way.
Well, for Apple, anyway. Three years later, the world met another voice AI — Amazon's Alexa — and saw the app marketplace once envisioned built in the form of the skill marketplace. Two years later, that marketplace had over 5,000 skills to call its own. As of the end of 2017, Amazon was touting 25,000, and some sources are estimating that number has already surpassed 30,000.
Google has tried to keep pace with Amazon, and even managed to outsell it speaker-wise during Q1 2018. According to tech research firm Canalys, Google Home sales bounced up a staggering 483 percent year over year to 3.2 million units, versus 2.5 million Echo devices for Amazon.
Apple and Siri? Not so much.
Hopes were high last year when Apple announced the release of its HomePod smart speaker. However, though the sound quality was favorably reviewed in general, one complaint recurred over and over: It wasn't really that smart. The HomePod was (and is) only compatible with Apple Music and, though there is a work-around for Spotify users, it is cumbersome. The HomePod is also only compatible with Apple devices, and comes out of the box with a fraction of the skills of an Alexa-powered Echo or an Google Assistant-powered Google Home. Add to that a big buy price — over $400 — and the fact that the rollout was delayed, to the point that it missed the holiday season entirely and wasn't in the hands of consumers until February of this year. Apple's entrance into the smart speaker race was marked by more of a whimper than a bang.
The question that has been circulating is whether Apple can get back on track in this race when, by all accounts, it has been left in the digital dust by both Amazon and Alexa.
The Great White WWDC Hope
Gene Munster, managing partner at the venture capital firm Loup Ventures and a long-time Apple watcher (and enthusiast), thinks that hope lives on — and that the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) next week will have some big upgrades coming for both Siri and the HomePod. Siri, he thinks, will get some upgrades that will help it begin to cover the ground it has lost to its competitors. And ground, Munster concedes, it has lost.
According to his research, Siri's correct answer/action rate is about 75 percent over 800 questions/requests. That's better than it was a year ago when the result clocked at about 66 percent. But that is far off from the 85 percent logged by Google and Amazon's offerings. In particular, Munster thinks Siri will now offer support for functions like navigation and email services — something its rivals currently both have — as well as open up for integration with users' calendars, a much maligned lack in the system.
The price of the device may be going down — or, perhaps better to say, the price of a speaker embedded with Siri is going down — and Munster is predicting the rollout of a smart Beats speaker when Apple takes the stage next week. The forecast price point is $250 — a reasonable savings over the $349 HomePod by a significant margin, but still roughly double the price of its competitors.
Will It Work?
Though the buzz is building up in advance of WWDC, the skepticism around Apple's latest and greatest offerings remain. The pre-chatter seems to all be asking some variation of the question Slate asked on the subject: "Hey Siri, can you learn to do some more stuff?"
Whether it will remains to be seen — Apple historically fancies keeping its garden well walled — but the demand for more third-party integration has become loud and continuous in the HomePod's time on the market. And it appears that if Apple really wants to try to recapture ground from Amazon and Google, it is going to have to learn to play ball with others somewhat better than it is currently. Apple may like walled gardens, but consumers don't.
How much will that affect what is next for Siri and the HomePod? That is still a question. We'll let you know when the full run of upgrades rolls out at WWDC next week.