Why So Siri-ous, Indeed

How new Siri parallels old Siri...
Why So Siri-ous? | TechCrunch
Looking over the web and especially the blogosphere over the past couple of days, it seems there is only one thing everyone wants to talk about: Siri. With the iPhone 4S now in millions of peoples’ hands, as expected, it’s clearly the stand-out feature of the device. But wait. Voice technology has been around for a long time. Or, as one TechCrunch commenter succinctly put it on Erick’s video demo post of Siri: “4 year old software, 8 year old technology.” This recalls one of my favorite aspects of tech blogging. You write about something, then everyone and their mother rushes out to yell something along the lines of “OLD!”. Or, even better, competitors trip over themselves to yell “FIRST!”. So if the stuff Siri is doing is old, and if others did do it FIRST, then why is everyone so damn excited about the feature? There are a few reasons. But the simplest answer is one that has played out time and time again over the past several years: Apple did it right.

Sort of fun/humorous/sad to look back at this post I wrote – um, 13 years ago – around the launch of the iPhone 4S and iOS 5. Aka, the first phone with Siri baked in. The more things change...

The funny thing is that while Apple are normally brilliant marketers in this regard, they’re actually holding back on Siri right now. Why? Because they consider the product to still be in “beta”. And while every Google product starts in beta, it’s not a tag Apple takes lightly. Talking with them leading up to the launch, they clearly feel that Siri as it stands right now, while a great first step, is nowhere near where they want it to be. It may take six months to get there. It may take a year. But when Apple does get it to where they feel it’s ready, I bet we’ll see a massive marketing push. And we may even see it come to other devices at that point.

It may take a year. Or 13 years. Maybe. But in all Siri-ousness, it's sort of wild how much that original roll out of Siri parallel the unveiling this week of the "new" Siri. Right down to the telegraphing that it may take a year to get fully up to speed, feature-wise.

But again, this is a beta product. Does anyone really think Apple isn’t going to work quickly to integrate it with other data partners? Imagine it tied to Quora. Imagine it tied to Twitter (and how is it not already?!). Imagine it tied to Foursquare. Imagine it tied to… Facebook. If and when that happens, Google will have a very legitimate reason to be concerned.

While humorous to think now that linking up to Quora and Foursquare could lead to a killer product, in a way, those were the LLMs of their day. Really, all the social networks were, with the rapidly expanding corpus of information. Google didn't actually have a reason to be concerned then, obviously. But we're saying the same things now with the rise of AI!

Right now, Google is a middle man between us and information. And we love Google for it. There’s simply too much information out there for anyone to find by themselves. There needs to be a middle man. We need Google. Apple has been hinting for a while that mobile applications could change this game. But apps are just a new, perhaps more accessible wrapper of information. There still needs to be a search mechanism powering the discovery of information — that’s why everyone keeps insisting that Apple will eventually get into the search engine business.

Well they have. But not in the way that everyone was thinking. Siri is their entry point. Again, it’s a small step right now, but it has the potential to be massive. (Perhaps the more pressing question: is Apple okay relying heavily on a third party, Nuance, for what may become a core component of their stack?)

Apple indeed did not get into search (and are paid handsomely as a result). But Siri remains the way they think about that space from an Apple product perspective. "No, they're not in the search area. They're in the AI area." Steve Jobs said on stage at the AllThingsD conference at the time in sort of a hauntingly prescient statement.1

Also the song remains the same with Apple's aversion to third-parties controlling any level of their stack. The Nuance thing was sort of a nightmare (as it was for many folks dealing with Nuance) before Apple was finally able to break away – and now guess who owns Nuance? Microsoft. This OpenAI deal is obviously quite different and far more arms-length. But you can bet that Apple will continue to work to build more capabilities of a similar nature in-house over time.

And that’s another fundamental reason why people are so excited by Siri where they aren’t by Google voice search. Google voice search, like basically every Google product, is ultimately a way to drive more Google searches. It’s just a new layer. Even if people don’t fully understand that, they sense that it doesn’t point to something totally new. Siri does point to something totally new. With it, Apple wants to change the information search and creation paradigm. It’s an evolution powered by mobile and a new, more powerful input: voice.

This is a vision that has been 24 years in the making at Apple. The video below first re-surfaced around the launch of the iPad. “Apple envisioned their tablet 20+ years ago!,” everyone yelled. But at the time, everyone overlooked the arguably more powerful aspect: natural language voice interaction. Apple was quietly working on that too. And now it’s here. Heralding the future.

That video referenced was the Knowledge Navigator concept video made by Apple in the 1980s (during the Steve Jobs exile). I've been linking to it a lot these past few weeks in relation to all the AI "Apple Intelligence" announcements. That future wasn't ready in 1987. Nor in 1997 when Jobs returned to Apple. Nor in 2011 when Siri first launched. Nor in 2017. So I have to ask again, is it ready now?

One more thing: just 11 days before I wrote the post above about Siri, Steve Jobs passed away. A few hours before he passed, I was actually at Apple (in London) getting my first briefing/demo of Siri. It feels like a different lifetime and a different age. But hearing Steve Jobs say of Siri, "they're in the AI area" – the more things stay the same...

1 Though this once again leads me to wonder if part of the reason why Apple has been so slow/reluctant to completely re-work Siri is because of Jobs. He clearly believed in Siri. Has Apple not questioned that belief enough over the past decade-plus?