Fast Company

Why Google And Microsoft Are Bad-Mouthing Apple's Chatty Siri

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Google's head of Android, Andy Rubin, discussed some surprising things at the AllThingsD conference, including the controversial notion that there shouldn't be a distinction between tablet apps and phone apps. He also took a dig at Apple's Siri interface: "I don't believe your phone should be an assistant...Your phone is a tool for communicating," he opined, "You shouldn't be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone."

Perhaps Rubin forgot that Android runs apps, tens of thousands of them, and only a handful are about telephony. Perhaps he also forgot about: Google Voice Search and Google Goggles, which are alternative voice- and image-based ways of interacting with your phone, and about Google's search database, or the voice control that Google laced into Android from the start. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic for the days before the "smart" prefixed the phone?

Microsoft's Windows Phone president, Andy Lee, also leveled criticisms at Siri at AllThingsD. The type of personal assistant interaction delivered by Siri, Lee said, "isn't super useful." At the same time, he noted that Windows Phone 7 has a degree of voice interactivity in the way it connects to Bing, and thus harnesses "the full power of the internet, rather than a certain subset."

Such Siri disses have industry punters confused. Lee is definitely targeting the way Apple's Siri uses curated resources to answer some questions, including Wolfram Alpha for slightly more math or fact-based answers, and Yelp for restaurant reviews. But have both executives overlooked the fact that Siri allows searches of Google and Bing (and Yahoo) when it can't find a clever answer that marries Wolfram Alpha's natural language query responses with its own easy-to-use, natural language interface?

Lee and Rubin must be nervous.

Siri As Search Diversion

One thing Siri does that may have both Google and Microsoft quaking in their boots is to act as a first sift "layer" for users trying to query the internet for information. When you speak to Siri the data gets whizzed off by Apple to its cloud servers, where the speech is processed and then interpreted--a process that, we imagine, involves trying to see if the query is answerable via a fact-based query to Wolfram Alpha ("how far away is the moon?") or a review-based query via Yelp ("is there a romantic restaurant nearby?").

Search in its most simple Internet-based results comes after this layer, because--as we all know--it's often a case of having to scan search results to try to find the data you're looking for, and that's just the way the Net works.

Siri could gum up Google and Bing (and Yahoo) ad revenue.

Google, of course, thinks it should be king of all search, which is why it's been launching its own search facilities for everything from cheap flights to patents, and now Apple's app (which has earned huge press coverage) has gone and supressed access to its search beneath a friendlier, more user-pleasing interface. Tens of millions of iPhone 4S users will perhaps learn to search the web like this. Because of its quiet successes with Bing, Microsoft is nervous for the same reason--loss of traffic, and thus ad revenues that go alongside this.

Apple's also now able to gather a huge database about how its users query the web--and it's a data-rich "semantic query" one, which could let Apple leap ahead in optimizing its own efforts at Net search technology. And it's not beyond the pale that Apple could find a way to monetize this layer of data and language-based interactivity in the future, possibly tying in to iAd.

Siri As A New User Experience

Another thing that may have Google and MS worried is that Siri represents yet another way of interacting with your device. It's already impressive, and has definitely caught the public's imagination--but we should remember that it's a very beta service, and that Apple has big plans to develop Siri into an even more intuitive, useful interface.

Apart from surprising the world by devising a new way to interact with your mobile devices, in terms of full-toushcreens and multitouch, Apple just moved the dial again, leaping a little further ahead than its rivals have in voice controls. Any lead that Apple can build up will cost Google and Microsoft time, effort and plenty of research dollars. Until they catch up they'll get the poor PR from dragging behind the cutting edge.

Siri's Enterprise Potential

Because it has this not-so-subtle "personal assistant" flavor to its usefulness--highlighted by Apple with the ease of setting up and adjusting meeting requests and taking dictation in many of its PR pitches--Siri may also find a fan base in the enterprise community.

We know the iPhone has been a hot-ticket request by many a businessperson, damaging BlackBerry's market as it goes--and the iPad has continued the trend. It's hard not to imagine a stressed and overly-busy manager delighting at barking meeting commands at their phone, rather than fiddling with awkward software to do so.

MS and Google, in this regard, should be worried that Apple will make bigger inroads into enterprise markets with Siri--a space that Android and Windows Phone 7 have begun to enter, as a new survey from Good shows, but have yet to really make much of an impact in. Apple could, in effect, be limiting their market options before MS and Google really get going.

Siri's Future on Macs and iPads

Another huge worry for Apple's competitors should be that the company will take its expertise gained from Siri in Beta on the iPhone 4S, and turn it into a massive game-changer with Siri 1.0 on the iPhone, the upcoming iPad 3 and the Mac itself, especially since there's no reason an adjustment to the already impressive voice control "assistive" interfaces in OS X couldn't learn from mobile tech and be augmented.

Google and MS, instead of gaining millions of search queries via the little search box in the top of Apple's Safari browser, could lose significant chunks of their traffic away to other targets at Siri's suggestion. With tight integration with OS X, Siri could also make the Mac a wholly new and intuitive computing experience that would further threaten MS's desktop Windows market, and Google's fledgling Chrome market. 

Siri Skeptics

Were Lee and Rubin's efforts just a off-target and snide attacks on a technology their two companies aren't even providing, yet (and may never provide)? It remains to be seen if their words ring as hollow and amusing as Ballmer's original laughter at the notion of the iPhone.

We're pretty sure of one thing: both Microsoft and Google will be desperately working, no matter what they say now, on services that behave like Siri on their own platforms--Google being especially well-placed to compete with its experience in Voice, Voice Search, and Apps. From an end-user point of view, this kind of innovation will definitely be welcome, if either one offers competition that advances the usability of the mobile web.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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18 Comments

  • Bob Barry

    Note: I don't own either a Google phone or a Microsoft phone. But I have owned every version of every iPhone. Nuf said.

  • D Hankinson

    As usual in every Apple article here there are a ton of, maybe's, could's, should's and total wishful speculations as to Apples total tech domination. It would be nice if they could solve the huge battery issue with all the iphones before they add more bells and whistles to their toy, however that would prevent them from selling you another phone in six months with the fixes to the previous version. The jury is still out on Siri, lets see how good it works in a crowd of people or a car full of kids.

  • Michael Sullivan

    A lot of people seem to forget what the "A" in PDA stands for. The iPhone is part phone and part PDA. The other part simply has a voice now.

  • Merritt Tilley III

    Sounds like jealousy to me.  If GOOGLE and MS realized that an iPhone was more than a communications device, they would have something like Siri also.  I agree with Jim Burt, the employment prospects for AI researchers have improved.

  • Johan Ahlund

    The only viable alternative to Siri that can save the other players is the Teneo Mobile platform that www.artificial-solutions.com launched only days after Siri was launched. It is both platform independent and includes an SDK that can be used to build in natural language interactivity in apps. IKEA is already using their technology in 21 languages!!!

  • Bernard Martin

    Perhaps SIRI is the big sleeper that is going to sneak up on brand marketing. In September, Eric Schmidt told Congress that the market is changing:
    "Google faces competition from numerous sources including other general search engines (such as Microsoft‟s Bing, Yahoo!, and Blekko); specialized search sites, including travel sites (like Expediaand Travelocity), restaurant reviews (like Yelp), and shopping sites (like Amazon and eBay); social media sites (like Facebook); and mobile applications beyond count, just to name a few.For example, let‟s say you‟re looking for a local restaurant. You might search on Google for “localrestaurant,” but increasingly people are going on to Facebook and Twitter to ask their friends forrestaurant recommendations. Or, you might use the Yelp mobile application on your iPhone orAndroid phone to find restaurants near your location. More than ever before we‟re competing vigorously against each of these other ways for users to access information.Consumers have a truly vast array of options – some search and some not – from which to access information. Well-known shopping sites like Amazon, Wal-Mart, and eBay are essentially search engines that focus on product search and provide customers with an opportunity to buy a good at the end of their search"
    To paraphrase: People don't want to get a choice list in search, they want and answer.
    SIRI, by tapping into Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, etc. is going to impact how search is done: creating that level of foundation for growth probably took some time to think through. Who else might SIRI link to in the future? Who writes code to link to it?  There seems to be a lot more planning of those data structures that you might first realize.That could be a fundamental change in how we search for things. As a sidebar, the facial recognition has some pretty amazing potential for marketers in the future. . Facebook has that for a static pic, but apple can now grab facial dimensions from various angles which means 3d. And they are the only ones that I am aware of at this point, who can do that. Monetization of that capability has some pretty big implications, so again, planning for that expansion probably took quite a bit of time and merits some pondering on the part of market strategists.SO the jury is out until we start to see how consumers start to use the new device... only then will we realize what impact the 4s has made. If it's true to form with Apple, it will be seamless. Consumer's won't realize what's happening but you can be certain that there are some people in vertical markets today saying "OMG, they can take my business" as they look back at how iTunes turned the music distribution channel on it's head.

  • Chuck Yort

    I have not had a chance to use Siri and am intrigued by the possibility.  However, I am also concerned about over-promising and under-delivering.  Does anyone remember the Newton and handwriting recognition?  When the Newton failed to recognize written text, people blamed the product.  Voice is even more difficult given different audio backgrounds, dialects, accents, etc.  If Siri can successfully recognize words and syntax to provide reliable responses, the promises and threats discussed in this post are quite possible.  If Siri fails and only frustrates the user, the negative repercussions could extend beyond the application.  That said; I am impressed with Google's accuracy when "dictating" to send texts or emails on the Droid phone.

  • Bud Thompson

    The iPhone still has no turn-by-turn voice directions. Android phones have for some time. Kit Eaton doesn't mention this....but then he wouldn't.

  • Andrew Stevens

    "I don't believe your phone should be an assistant...Your phone is a tool for communicating..." "You shouldn't be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone."
    Haven't we learned from people like Ken Olsen who said there was no reason to own a computer in your home ('77) only to have the Apple II come out and prove that entirely wrong? Putting constraints on what technology can or should do is the first step in hindering innovation. 

  • Bob Jacobson

    Siri has revolutionized the telephone.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Anyone
    who refuses to see that doesn't get that most people do like to talk to
    their phones, because it makes it easier to get things done.  I'd love
    to talk to Google and be able to refine searches using natural language
    instead of textual lines and phrases.  Maybe someday I'll be able to,
    probably because Siri shows that it's possible and is showing Google to
    be just a search engine not so different from search engines a decade
    ago, all keyboard-driven.

  • Gerald Goldschein

    Why are tech people so arrogant? I am/was a techie and I embraced using technology beyond the original designed for concept. I currently try my best to use the Droid Calendar as a personal assistant. Not easy to enter as I would wish, however it suffices.

  • Dina James

    I really think Siri has a lot of promise. It certainly has the ability to replace a lot of actionable searches (find me a restaurant, find me a bar, where can I buy pants) and this provides value to businesses and is something that Apple can get involved with commercially. I initially thought that Facebook had one of the biggest opportunities to tackle Google in search with how much data they had about people and how big the Facebook advertising ecosystem is (see http://www.buyfacebookfansrevi... to see this point illustrated firsthand) but now I think that Apple has the potential to be one of the bigger players here just by using some of their technology and user-experience smarts to provide a quality, curated experience. It doesn't matter how good Google's algorithms are if Siri's smart enough to satisfy a large percentage of people's everyday needs. With Facebook pressuring Google and now this from Apple, I think Google has to find a way to use Android in a really positive way to bolster their search business because this pressure is going to change the market landscape in the long-run if current trends continue.

  • Steve Ardire

    Good post and your 2 best points1) Technology oneupmanship i.e. Siri acting as a first sift "layer" for users trying to query the internet for information. 2) Siri could gum up Google and Bing (and Yahoo) ad revenue.

  • Lora Kolodny

    @Steve - I'm a tech editor here, and agree those were two of the strongest points @KitEaton made in this post. I also think about the hands-free aspect to this. First, I think about search while driving. Does search and communications via your mobile device become safe, using Siri, meaning Apple may be able to curb accidents associated with texting-while-driving? And... aging boomers. They're buying iPhones too, presumably. But they're also presumably dealing with things like arthritis and just touch screen frustration. This makes mobile devices accessible to this huge population as they age, keeps them connected (if it works as promised). I know it's not about the search ad revenue, but I think about accessibility, and good will, too. 

  • Bob Jacobson

    Hey, we're in general agreement, Lora, but so far among my friends -- I'm 62, my friends are aged from 18 through 85 -- I haven't seen many who are physically unable to use their phones.  That's far less trying for the older folks than opening a stuck lid on a bottle of ketchup.  I don't think boomers are interface-challenged. Even my late Dad, who was 85 when he passed, was on his old Mac several hours each day, poking away on a keyboard many younger folks would have found challenging.  It's not for pity that we should be concerned, but for the fact that just beyond the interface developers are often still confused about how normal human beings process information.  Siri has the benefit that it homogenizes the task of making the phone do what we want it to do regardless of inconsistencies from app to app.  It's too bad that Apple didn't open source it, but considering how much tech is driven by corporate financial strategies rather than concern for the user, it's understandable if not entirely cool that Apple is forcing the others to build their own more humane 'faces.