Siri In Chains

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For the first time in a long while I didn’t rush to a strong wifi connection in order to download the latest betas of Apple’s software following the unveilings at WWDC.

To be fair, I’m on the road, without all my devices (and perhaps most importantly, mybackup devices). But to be unfair, I streamed the entire keynote on a very strong wifi connection andI’ve been having a lot of issues with the iPad I do have with me on the road — the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Or, as I call it, the iPad Pro …gressively Restarting. Maybe the iOS beta will fix this for me. Plus, I have the Apple Watch with me. Or, as I call it, the Apple Watch 0.5. It seems like the watchOS software may finally — finally — upgrade it to Apple Watch 1.0.

Anyway, I thought about upgrading both the iPad Pro and the Apple Watch to the betas of iOS 10 and watchOS 3 respectively, but I ultimately opted not to. Perhaps it’s the direct result of having dealt with years of these initial betas and knowing just how buggy they are (I hear watchOS 3 is particularly buggy). Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting too old for this shit. Or maybe I was just underwhelmed and nothing unveiled on Monday felt like a drop-everything-and-upgrade feature.

That, I think, actually is unfair. It’s the same rhetoric we hear after every Apple event these days. Boring! The truth remains far more nuanced. Iterative, as it were — quite literally. Most of the devices we all have are “good enough” but Apple continues to polish and perfect. And to that end, I’m sure iOS 10, watch OS 3, and macOS Sierra will all be great upgrades. Plus, they’re free. Who can complain?

Don’t answer that.

I guess the most interesting thing I took away from the keynote involved the common thread amongst all this software (well, beyond iCloud): Siri. A few weeks ago on his podcast, The Talk Show, John Gruber and I were thinking outloud about how the then still-rumored third-party Siri integrations could work. Perhaps it will all sync via iCloud? Perhaps you won’t even need full apps to use such integrations?

Turns out, we over-thought it. As Farhad Manjoo notes:

Another problem is that Siri is still hopelessly tied to each Apple device. Siri on your iPhone doesn’t really know anything about Siri on your Mac or Apple TV. On each device, Siri has different capabilities: On your iPhone it can call an Uber, if you have the Uber app installed, but Siri on your Mac can’t. Siri on your Apple TV can search YouTube for clips of Stephen Curry, but Siri on your iPhone can’t.

It didn’t seem like Apple could possibly offer a different Siri experience on difference devices.¹ This would be confusing. Not very Apple-like. Right? Wrong. This is exactly what they’re doing. And while I think it will be a mistake long-term, I think it’s fine for now.

While myself and people like me may have a ton of different Apple devices, most regular folks, if they have any Apple devices, probably have one or two. As such, there won’t be a huge Siri fragmentation issue. Yet.

But, if the other reports are to be believed, and Apple is working on an Amazon Echo-like device for always-on Siri, this fragmentation will be highly problematic. As I’ve noted before, the key to the adoption of this new vocal computing paradigm is it “just working.” Right now, that’s why Amazon has an edge with Echo/Alexa. Imagine if you go to summon an Uber via Siri on this new hypothetical Apple device but you don’t have it installed on that device, only on your iPhone. Yeah, you’re basically training people not to try to use Siri in that way.

Apple has to know that, of course. So I suspect we’ll get some sort of better unification option than simply downloading the same apps to all your devices.

But we may need it sooner rather than later given the new macOS Siri integration. On the Mac, there is no Uber app to download. So how exactly will that work? Can you just not summon an Uber from Siri if you happen to be sitting at your desk? I guess you can’t on your desktop right now anyway, but that’s what Siri aspires to: the always-on, always-ready assistant for everything, no matter where you are. So this won’t fly.

I can just see it (hear it) now. Someone at their office on their Mac: “Hey Siri, call me an… Ah, crap. Never mind.” Someone in their living room using Apple TV: “Hey Siri, look up tickets… Damnit!” It’s hard enough to get people used to using these vocal computing services. It will be impossible if there’s a heavy cognitive load as you have to recall what service you can use where with Siri.

Anyway, we’re talking about beta software. Maybe Apple thinks this through a bit more before the software is released in the fall. But I suspect they won’t for the reason mentioned above: it won’t be a widespread issue just yet. But it will be soon enough. And as Amazon continues to put Alexa in more and more places, it could make this Siri issue decidedly more pronounced.

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