In 2003, IBM released a strange, THX 1138-inspired, creepy commercial dubbed “Prodigy.” It featured a vacuously staring blonde boy silently sucking up knowledge from people as diverse as an anonymous plumber, college basketball coaching legend John Wooden, a mustachioed Muhammad Ali, and comedic actress Penny Marshall. The commercial touted the open nature of Linux (to which I doubt any of the celebrities actually contributed much code). Had IBM waited, though, it would have represented a much more appropriate metaphor for Watson and other technologies associated with machine learning.
Another good target for the metaphor would be Siri. Unlike Alexa, which operates independently from screen-manipulated apps, and Bixby, which Samsung ambitiously seeks to develop into a parallel interface to touch for complete smartphone control, Siri is intentionally limited in the number and types of apps with which it can interoperate. Because of this, Apple has taken heat that it is evolving Siri too slowly.
Apple might respond by noting that it positions Siri as being about getting things done. But that is a pretty broad purview. After all, Microsoft — which aims “empowers every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” in its mission statement — has found some time to include winning video games about blasting space soldiers into that definition. Indeed, there are several signs that Siri is expanding well beyond the starting gate of weather and Wikipedia entries.
First, like IBM’s blonde boy, Siri continues to expand its purview, encroaching on what iPhone users have traditionally had to gaze at their screen to accomplish. The latest class of apps that Apple is teaching Siri about is banking, a natural extension to the work that the company is doing with Apple Pay. PayPal has already added integration with Siri, but the roadmap will likely expand banking relationships to include checking balances, bill payments, and transfers, perhaps to Apple Pay Cash.
Second, Siri is expanding to new device homes. While the agent has been more about barking orders at non-Apple devices via HomeKit as opposed to living inside them like Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant (the just-announced Harman smart speakers are a case in point), its presence in AirPods notwithstanding, HomePod represents Siri’s first starring role completely off-screen, and there will be some commands to which, down the line, we can expect to see more screen-free voice interactions via AirPods, Apple Watch, or whatever ARKit-related eyewear Apple will likely introduce at some point.
Third, while one shouldn’t read too much into shifting executive responsibilities, Siri’s move at Apple from Eddie Cue to Craig Federighi brings Siri under the same roof as iOS and macOS. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Siri will turn into an OS in the sense of something that runs on bare metal. But while Siri may be a slowly evolving platform, it is one with great resources behind it. Whether it has a screen available on which to make its presence or must rely solely on its recently upgraded voices, what began as Apple’s hodgepodge of novelty interactions is evolving as a primary user interface.
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