Tech companies today are rushing to develop some of the most advanced digital assistants, voice controlled, AI-enabled, intuitive, and capable of handling even the most complex of tasks. Amidst this, Apple’s Siri, despite having the leverage of gracing some of the most expensive hardware in the world, is still a notch behind rivals. In a series of interviews, former Apple employees tell The Information about the issues plaguing the development of the digital assistant in the right direction.
“When Steve died the day after Siri launched, they lost the vision. They didn’t have a big picture,” one of the former employees is quoted as saying by Seeking Alpha. The digital assistant marked its debut on the Apple iPhone 4s – the first smartphone Tim Cook announced as he tried fitting in the shoes of the ailing Steve Jobs. While the iPhone 4s was only an incremental upgrade, Siri’s addition was what helped it perform remarkably well in the sales.
According to one of the former Apple employees, the company rushed into introducing Siri to debut in the iPhone 4s before the tech was ready. It was Jobs who pushed for the project, however, one of Apple’s most promising technologies turned into a major problem when conflicts began within the teams. There were debates over whether to continue patching up the unfinished product or start from scratch, reports Mac Rumors.
Most arguments took place over what the ideal version of Siri should be – a quick and accurate information fetcher or a conversant and intuitive assistant capable of complex tasks. Today, take any rival assistant for example, Google Assistant or Alexa, the capabilities are far more advanced. The assistants today are capable of not only scheduling calendar events for you but also help you shop the ‘right thing’ online, control lights and appliances in your home and send you alerts if someone breaks into the house. The whole idea is to make the digital assistant the core of products. However, back then, the technology was in its nascent stages and the incorrect handling possibly led to its poor scores against rivals.
In addition to regular conflicts, the change in leadership also added to the woes. The team working on Siri was overseen by Apple’s then iOS chief Scott Forstall, but he was reportedly also working on other major products including the Apple Maps. This led Forstall to enlist Richard Williamson to head the Siri team. It is here that the things turned from bad to worse as a lot of decisions that Williamson took were reportedly disagreed upon by the rest of the team, including the plan to improve Siri’s capabilities only once a year. However, Williamson denied the allegations.
He wrote in response to the report, “After launch, Siri was a disaster. It was slow, when it worked at all. The software was riddled with serious bugs. Those problems lie entirely with the original Siri team, certainly not me.” Forstall and Williamson were both fired by Apple in 2012 following the botched launch of Apple Maps on iOS 6.
Given Apple’s nature of secrecy, the Siri team was apparently unaware of the HomePod until 2015. Some reports have indicated that the company had developed speaker prototypes dating as back as 2012, however, the team did not have a clue about it, until 2015 when Amazon unveiled the Echo speakers. One source claims Apple’s original plan was to launch its speaker without Siri, possibly that would have given the HomePod some positive response.
The ex-Apple employees blame the half-baked Siri as the main reason behind HomePod’s poor performance in the market, despite a remarkable design. The employees admit Siri’s capabilities are far more limited compared to the competition including Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Siri’s major failure is that it lacks a third-party developer ecosystem. Apple launched Sirikit in 2016 but it includes only 10 activities in ‘intent domains’ such as payments, cab booking, looking at photos, and setting up to-do lists.
It is not the first time Apple’s former workforce has come out to reveal the issues plauging the company from within. However, as always, Apple is quick to defend its product and services. In response to the report, Apple issued a statement noting Siri is the world’s most popular voice assistant with significant advances which improve its performance, scalability and reliability.
The company wrote, “We have applied the latest machine learning techniques to create a more natural voice and more proactive features,” adding, “We continue to invest deeply in machine learning and artificial intelligence to continually improve the quality of answers Siri provides and the breadth of questions Siri can respond to.”
Although Apple continues to ensure its digital assistant is capable enough to power more hardware, former employees note that while the company has tried to remake itself as a services company, its core is still product design.