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.
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.