Siri and all her friends: why it’s SiriOS or bust this WWDC

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” – Gandalf

Siri remains the biggest liability turned threat Apple has faced in quite some time. It’s clear from FB, Google IO an Microsoft Build (let alone the blistering pace of progress of Amazon Alexa) that Apple needs to move quickly to close the gap before it’s too late. And while it’s clear that digital assistants on smartphones doesn’t quite matter yet on mobile, the day where users begin to change their purchase behavior on the basis of assistance is drawing near. One can’t help but feel that this WWDC is a make or break moment for Siri and for Apple.

What began as a multi year lead has given way to a serious deficit compared to erstwhile competitors Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant. iPhone user satisfaction with Siri is dramatically lower than their overall satisfaction, but that should not comfort the paranoid in Apple’s executive team. Safe for now, Apple’s formidable iOS ecosystem stands to face serious competitive pressure when the basis of competition shifts underneath their feet as it appears to be doing in the case of assistance. Left without a major upgrade in capability as a platform in its own right rather than simply an appendage to iOS, Siri will be alone in its fight against the other assistants, fighting with a vastly smaller data corpus and with far less mature cloud and data practices internally.

Apple struggles with all things cloud services, machine learning and data. Siri unfortunately relies quite heavily on all three, and as a result, its ability to even correctly transcribe my words lags the field significantly. This will always be an issue, and while Apple basically needs to build or buy their way out of this deficiency, its strategic ace in the hole does not necessarily require them to bear Alexa or Google Assistant’s voice to text capability overnight. By leveraging the power of arguably the most important and robust consumer facing developer platform, community and economy in history, iOS, Apple can bring to bear an ecosystem that will unlock differentiated, delightful conversational user experiences.

Rather than renting space on Alexa or Facebook Messenger, iOS developers can leverage the master assistant as a sort of “router” to assistance experiences totally owned and controlled by that business. Siri gains new superpowers to help get users’ jobs done: asking for help from the App Store, iOS’ crown jewel. By leaning on its developer community rather than trying to be itself the smartest AI out there, Apple can securely, richly and sustainably deliver the science fiction style digital assistants we’ve envisioned. We have Alexa, Erica, Cortana, Eno, Luvo, Cleo and more, and so rather than winning a platform war with a better product, Apple can win it with a superior ecosystem. It can win it with SiriOS.

SiriOS – Siri operating system – would more or less be a rewritten SiriKit, sans the domain guardrails and with the capability for some sort of developer (and possibly user) defined intents and ontologies. The new Siri “applet” would require the app to be installed on the device. From third party audio apps to shopping experiences and beyond, giving developers the type of flexibility afforded by other assistant platforms would return Apple to pole position, if only in the knick of time. Rather than being threatened by Alexa, Amazon would become Apple’s best friend in the voice world. There’s no need to go so far as Android’s recently announced ability to set other assistants like Alexa and Cortana as the primary. “Hey Siri, ask Alexa to order some more paper towels,” is winning the war without firing a shot.

As things progress, one can imagine usage of Siri beginning to climb, helping Apple with that voice to text problem by providing useful data for Siri to learn from. Apple Business Chat is another fascinating new piece of the puzzle, whereby we could see a convergence into a multimodal experience that not only mixes text, voice and rich GUI, but human and bot interactions as well. And as discovery of new Siri apps gets more robust, the ability for users to interact with Siri apps without the core iOS app needing to be download may come to the fore as Apple dabbles around things like app thinning, but core and (allegedly) declarative UI frameworks. Things start getting very interesting for iOS as SiriOS becomes a powerful abstraction leak that gets to the core of how we use computers.

Siri needs to become the preferred voice UI platform for consumers and developers, and a point of aggregation of the user experience which Apple can control entirely. In doing so, they stand poised to be the ones to spike the assistance football. Yet again, Apple goes last.

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