The Inward-Looking Siri

On this week’s episode of Ctrl-Walt-Delete, Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel spoke about Siri and how Apple views the service and what it can do.

You should go listen to the episode, but in it, Mossberg shares that Apple is focused on improving the parts of Siri that people use most, like making phone calls and setting timers. This comes at the expense of expanding Siri’s knowledge about other things, including common, everyday questions:

In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series. When I asked it “What is the weather on Crete?” it gave me the weather for Crete, Illinois, a small village which — while I’m sure it’s great — isn’t what most people mean when they ask for the weather on Crete, the famous Greek island.

I understand Apple wanting to make sure that Siri’s core functionality of controlling your iOS device keeps getting better. That stuff should be bulletproof, but we’re five years into Siri’s life. The company should be moving past these features and making Siri smarter about the world around us.

There are some fundamental differences between Apple and Google when it comes to privacy, and I believe those differences will allow Google to continue to lead in the area of digital assistants infused with artificial intelligence. However, consumer privacy has nothing to do with some of the simple tasks Siri still fails at doing.

Siri falls back to a Bing search results page way too often. I expect my virtual assistant to be able to parse information from the Internet and read it back to me as I drive or am in the kitchen with my hands dirty. Reading a bunch of search results completely defeats the purpose of using Siri to begin with.

I would like to think that some part of the Siri team is dedicated to making sure the service knows enough about current events to answer basic questions about them. It sure seems like Apple’s focus on making Siri good at inward-facing features on iOS and macOS have come with a cost: that when it comes to interacting with real-world information, Siri is behind.

As these services get smarter and more powerful, the more I fear Apple’s getting left behind. Privacy issues aside, I think there’s more the company can and should be doing here. If Apple really is focused on making the most commonly-used Siri tasks better, they are creating a spiral of sorts.

If Siri continues to get better at placing phone calls, but not at searching basic information, people will just stop trying to use it for anything but placing phone calls. Siri, its uses, and where Apple improves it will just be one infinite loop of development instead of seeing substantial expansion.

Siri should feel like a living, growing platform and it just doesn’t. Even SiriKit, which allows developers to build plugins for the service, doesn’t get Apple far enough down the road. This is a platform vendor problem, and not one a handful of apps can solve.