Siri Updates Make the Apple HomePod an Easier Smart Speaker Sell
During its more than two-hour keynote that kicked off the 2018 Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple covered a ton of new updates to its four major software platforms—iOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS. But above all else, it was the upgrades to the company’s digital assistant, Siri, that truly stood out as potentially the most impactful improvements to Apple’s suite of products.
You can’t even argue at this point that Siri has really lagged behind as far as digital assistants are concerned. Despite getting a several years head start on Google and Amazon, Apple saw its lead in the voice robot market get quickly overtaken by Amazon’s Alexa and more recently Google Assistant. Those two competitive digital voice assistants made their way onto speakers and gobbled up almost all of the market share faster than you could say, “Steve Jobs.”
But it wasn’t just market share that Google and Amazon had control of over Apple. They also developed digital assistant systems that were much smarter and more capable than Siri, and in nearly half the time. It was a very un-Apple-like experience. They got the jump on a technology and rather than setting the tone for the marketplace, they seemingly didn’t know what to do with Siri and let her fall behind.
It’s been made inherently clear, though, that Apple intends to make up whatever ground it lost. During the last two keynotes—this WWDC keynote on Monday, and the Fall 2017 event—Apple has introduced hardware in the form of the HomePod and enhancements to the software supporting Siri.
When it introduced the HomePod in the Fall, Apple opted not to focus it being much of a “smart” speaker and instead touted the product’s hi-fi sound profile and it’s ability to adjust output settings based on its position in a given room. That move was well concocted as the speaker did pass the audiophile community’s sound test, but also because it really didn’t live up the hype as being much of a smart speaker at all. Sure, Siri is integrated into the HomePod, but it lacks some basic controls that something like an Echo or Google Home is capable of doing.
iOS12, which will get rolled out this Fall, looks to correct a lot of those issues. But it will also make Siri an all-around smarter digital assistant in the process.
During his portion of the keynote, Apple VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi introduced Suggestions and Shortcuts—two new upgrades to Siri. Suggestions are exactly what they sound like: suggestions made by Siri that are based on Apple’s deep learning engine that can make predictions in your routine based on past actions. So, for example, if you happen to stop at a coffee shop on the way to work frequently, Siri may suggest putting in your favorite drink order before you even left the house that way its ready for you when you arrive. Another scenario could be a suggestion to email or message a meeting organizer when Siri realizes you’re running late to a meeting.
Shortcuts, on the other hand, essentially bring Siri functionality and place it in the hands of the developers, enabling them to create “skills” for the user. These quick action items will be organized into a Shortcuts app where users can sift through a Shortcuts library and gallery and download Shortcuts that seem applicable to them.
What differentiates Apple’s Shortcuts from what you might see on other digital voice assistant services is that the user will have the ability to customize their Shortcuts right through the Shortcuts app and execute them using Siri. An example given showcased how the user could set up a Shortcut that took the command “I’m going home” and had Siri text someone to let them know, adjust the thermostat at home to a certain temperature, turn the lights on in preparation of their arrival, get directions from their current location to their house, and tee up their favorite podcast for the ride home. It’s a process that mimics what you might expect to find in the IFTTT (If This, Then That) web-based program, but with Siri commands running the program.
The improvements might seem incremental in the grand scheme of the voice assistant market, but for Siri they’re going to bring the service leaps and bounds ahead of where it is today. And that, in turn, will boost the profile of the HomePod as a truly smart speaker. And the one aspect of this that won’t get enough press is how it’s a tool that will now be in the hands of Apple’s community of 20 million developers around the world. That collective unit has the ability and opportunity to create a massive market of Siri skills that bring Apple’s voice assistant right back in line, and maybe even ahead of the competition.
Of course, this is all conjecture for now. We’ll get a better sense of just how much these improvements improve Siri when iOS 12 lands on devices this Fall.