A new report in the Wall Street Journal highlights Apple’s struggles in getting Siri to be a better assistant because of the company’s stance on privacy. While Apple was the first to debut a smart assistant on the phone, both Google and Amazon has both leaped ahead.
According to the report, roughly three years ago some of Apple’s Siri team members attended an Amazon event where the Echo and Alexa were first being shown off. At the time, the Siri team thought they were ahead and didn’t have much to worry about. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. In fact, according to the report “people at Apple’s anxiety level went up a notch.”
The outlook quickly changed as the team watched Amazon’s video showing off a small, voice-controlled speaker that could play music, order products and search the web. It demonstrated Amazon had figured out how to isolate voices from background noise and have a digital assistant respond to requests from a distance—abilities Siri hadn’t yet mastered.
Since then, the company has been playing catch-up, according to the report, but continues to run into problems due to the companies hard stance on privacy. In fact, even former Siri members seem to agree.
In the years since, former Siri team members say, progress has been slowed by a failure to set ambitious goals, shifting strategies and a culture that prioritizes user privacy—making it difficult to personalize and improve the product. The project also has suffered from the departures of key team members, some of whom went to competitors.
In the years since, many of the original members of the Siri team haves left Apple in order to try making a better assistant. Just recently, Siri co-founders Adam Cheyer and Dag Kittlaus sold their new assistant, known as VIV, to Samsung for $215 million.
Part of the reasons Siri seem to be falling behind is because Apple isn’t interested in keeping the data it collects from its users.
Apple protects user privacy by randomly tagging Siri searches and keeping the data tagged for only six months, unlike Google and Amazon, which keep data until users ask for it to be discarded. The practice has complicated efforts to improve Siri because Apple relinquished control of data before it could be used to gauge the impact of software tweaks, former Siri engineers said.
To be honest, I’m not sure why Apple doesn’t just keep the data. It’s not like they plan on monetizing it. Isn’t that really what separates them from Google and even Amazon? If Apple’s bread and butter is selling hardware, why aren’t they willing to collect tons of data in order to make that hardware better? Why are they handicapping themselves by removing the data just six months after they collect it? I don’t quite understand.
In fact, this highlights exactly why the Apple’s new speaker, the HomePod, is likely more about sound rather than smarts. By highlighting good sound, Apple can frame the narrative differently, which perhaps buys them some time to improve Siri.
The only problem, of course, is that it’s been six years. How much longer do we need to wait?