Apropos of my previous post on Apple services, Walt Mossberg posted a column today about the failings of Siri.   I think he’s largely right, but do have some thoughts to add:

  • I’m not as certain the AI wars will be as pivotal as many seem to, nor will it happen as soon as they think.   AI is like Speech recognition; both have been “just around the corner” for 25 years and are likely to be so for a while longer.   But yes, real progress is being made.
  • Walt is right that Google Now and Alexa are currently better than Siri in many ways, but I don’t think either are good enough to matter to mainstream users.   I love them, use them every day, but I’m a geek who’s been working on SR products for 25 years and am well trained on how to speak to them.   I watch my wife and kids use Alexa in my kitchen and often cringe at how often they fail – and a few failures are often enough to drive users away.   My wife frequently curses under her breath about missing our old FM radio…

Apple can probably throw together a competent offering that’s within shouting distance (ahem) of the others, because the truth is that much of the “AI” and “Machine learning” in these products is still just hard coded rules based on speech to text input.   In this sense they are just “super flexible command lines”.   Over time they will become smarter and less algorithmic, making it harder for Apple to catch up.

A final thought:  This problem might also not be so bad for Apple.   Apple builds a platform, with a lot of great users.   All of the competition will be clamoring to get their AI/Assistants onto Apple’s devices.   There will be a Cortana App, Alexa App, and Google Assistant App on iOS.   They won’t be deeply integrated into iOS, but that’s by Apple’s choice.    If they ever feel disadvantaged Apple could open up an Assistant platform, or offer a Most Favored Nation deal to Google, Microsoft, or Amazon to replace Siri; they’d all be willing to pay Apple billions of dollars for the privilege.

Still, it would be a big loss of differentiation for Apple and would cut off avenues for innovation.   I suspect Walt got a call from Eddy or Tim this morning and they are starting to worry.