Apple will open Siri to new kinds of apps at next week’s conference, but it won’t try to match Amazon’s wide breadth


tim cook
Apple CEO Tim
Cook

AP


By Stephen Nellis

Apple is expected to announce plans next week to make its Siri
voice assistant work with a larger variety of apps, as the
technology company looks to counter the runaway success of
Amazon.com Inc’s competing Alexa service.

But the Cupertino, California company is likely to stick to its
tested method of focusing on a small amount of features and
trying to perfect them, rather than casting as wide a net as
possible, according to engineers and artificial intelligence
industry insiders.

Currently, Apple’s Siri works with only six types of app:
ride-hailing and sharing; messaging and calling; photo search;
payments; fitness; and auto infotainment systems. At the
company’s annual developer conference next week, it is expected
to add to those categories.

Some industry-watchers have also predicted Apple will announce
hardware similar to Amazon’s Echo device for the home, which has
been a hot-seller recently. Apple declined comment.

But even if Siri doubles its areas of expertise, it will be a far
cry from the 12,000 or so tasks that Amazon.com’s Alexa can
handle.

The difference illustrates a strategic divide between the two
tech rivals. Apple is betting that customers will not use voice
commands without an experience similar to speaking with a human,
and so it is limiting what Siri can do in order to make sure it
works well.

Amazon puts no such restrictions on Alexa, wagering that the
voice assistant with the most “skills,” its term for apps on its
Echo assistant devices, will gain a loyal following, even if it
sometimes makes mistakes and takes more effort to use.

The clash of approaches is coming to a head as virtual assistants
that respond to voice commands become a priority for the leading
tech companies, which want to find new ways of engaging customers
and make more money from shopping and online services.

Path to money


amazon echo dot connected to external speaker
Amazon’s Alexa-enabled
Echo Dot

Steve Kovach/Business
Insider


Now, an iPhone user can say, “Hey Siri, I’d like a ride to the
airport” or “Hey Siri, order me a car,” and Siri will open the
Uber or Lyft ride service app and start booking a trip.

Apart from some basic home and music functions, Alexa needs more
specific directions, using a limited set of commands such as
“ask” or “tell.” For example, “Alexa, ask Uber for a ride,” will
start the process of summoning a car, but “Alexa, order me an
Uber” will not, because Alexa does not make the connection that
it should open the Uber “skill.”

After some setup, Alexa can order a pizza from Domino’s, while
Siri cannot get a pie because food delivery is not – so far – one
of the categories of apps that Apple has opened up to Siri.

“In typical Apple fashion, they’ve allowed for only a few use
cases, but they do them very well,” said Charles Jolley, chief
executive of Ozlo, maker of an intelligent assistant app.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said the company does not comment
on its plans for developers.

Amazon said in a statement: “Our goal is to make speaking
with Alexa as natural and easy as possible, so we’re looking at
ways to improve this over time.”

Side dish, not entree

Apple’s narrower focus could become a problem, said Matt
McIlwain, a venture capitalist with Seattle-based Madrona Venture
Group.

The potential of Apple’s original iPhone did not come to light
until thousands of developers started building apps. McIlwain
said he expects Apple to add new categories at its Worldwide
Developers Conference next week, but not nearly enough to match
Alexa’s number of skills.

“To attract developers in the modern world, you need a platform,”
McIlwain said. “If Apple does not launch a ‘skills store,’ that
would be a mistake.”

Neither Siri nor Alexa has a clear path to making money. Siri
works as an additional tool for controlling traditional apps, and
Apple pays money to owners of those apps. Alexa’s skills are
free, and developers are not paid.

At the moment, because of their limits, voice apps are “a side
dish, not the entree,” according to Oren Etzioni, CEO of the
Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Amazon was wise to not commit to an economic model at such an
early state, Etzioni said. “Once a successful economic model for
developers emerges, people are going to gravitate to it.”
(Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Peter Henderson and Bill
Rigby)


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