Siri was one of the first widely used voice-enabled AI assistants after Apple bought the start-up and released Siri on its iPhone 4S. In 2011, it had a few years head start on the other big tech players, but today, Siri has fallen behind its competitors both in terms of knowledge and skills and distribution.
Knowledge and Skills: Since Siri is built into the iPhone, it can make phone calls, send text messages, update your calendar etc. But its access to third party (3P) apps is relatively limited and up until 2016 it was nonexistent. This has put Siri at a huge disadvantage relative to its competitors.
- Alexa: Amazon’s Alexa is miles ahead of Siri with regards to 3P apps with over 7,000 “skills” as of January 4, 2017 after launching in 2015. Alexa is still confined to the home, but the use cases for Alexa outside of communications far exceed those of Siri, in part due to its massive brain that grows with every skill. Apple only recently allowed 3P developers to start working on Siri and it’s still a relatively closed system compared to Alexa.
- Google Assistant: Google has also announced that it will allow 3P developers to work on Google Assistant, and Google sits on a treasure trove of data from Google’s search engine as well as Gmail, calendar, etc. Furthermore, the presence of Google Assistant on Android devices erodes Siri’s communications advantage.
Siri wasn’t always this “close-minded”. When Apple purchased the company, Siri was able to connect to 42 different web services. This knowledge base made up a significant part of Siri’s “brain”, but after Apple bought Siri it removed these capabilities. This decision is not surprising given Apple’s preference for a tightly controlled closed system, but given that so much voice innovation today is happening on open platforms Siri is not set up for success.
Distribution: Siri has a user base of over 100M iPhones in the US giving it some advantage over competitors that haven’t gone mobile, but iOS’s market share is dwarfed by Google’s Android and Apple is notably behind on entering the home.
- Alexa: Amazon launched Alexa on the Echo speaker so most of Alexa’s current use cases revolve around the home where Siri has a notably weak presence. Since Amazon cares about increasing usage of Alexa regardless of platform it is not restricted to Amazon products. Alexa was practically omnipresent at the 2017 CES appearing in smart home devices by Samsung and LG as well as various startups. To date, Siri’s main advantage over Alexa is its availability on the iPhone. However, Amazon has already made moves into mobile by announcing that Alexa will be available on its next FireHD tablet, and in February Alexa will become available on a phone for the first time with the release of the Huawei Mate 9.
- Google: ~80% of 2015 global mobile phone shipments used the Android OS. Prior to the Apple acquisition, Siri had reached an exclusive deal with Verizon to make it a default app on all Android devices, however Apple unsurprisingly voided the agreement and made sure that Siri would be exclusive to Apple devices, thus giving Apple an early advantage with iPhone 4S sales, but potentially hurting it in the long run.
Apple’s value capture mechanism for Siri is unclear. At launch, it probably helped to sell iPhones since it was a novel feature, but with Google Assistant on Android devices as well as the proliferation of virtual assistant apps, AI assistants have become table stakes for phones. To add insult to injury, you can ask Alexa to purchase an iPad from Amazon but when you ask Siri to buy an iPad she says “Apple.com should be able to help you with that.”
As an outsider, it’s hard to say exactly what went wrong but I believe the initial decisions to keep Siri closed off from 3P development and make it exclusive to iOS hampered Siri’s ability to get smarter quicker and increase its user base. Some posit that corporate politics may have also played a role and that Siri may lack a corporate champion since there has been so much leadership turnover within the division.
When I asked Siri what she thought about all this she just said, “That’s nice of you to ask, but it really doesn’t matter what I think” and therein lies the rub.