What You Didn’t Hear From Apple WWDC About Siri, Voice or AI
Apple held it’s annual worldwide developer conference (WWDC) this afternoon and there was widespread expectations about some big updates to Siri, the HomePod smart speaker and use of artificial intelligence. Well, none of these came to pass. Siri received a minor update in shortcuts and suggestions, but those aren’t really Siri features. They were simply called Siri features. Siri was only interacted with briefly in a single demo. Apple simply reclassified everything that seemed assistant-like under a Siri umbrella.
Given the recent updates to Google Assistant adding more voice options and introducing WaveNet technology to make them sound more humanlike, it was not far-fetched to expect a smoother-talking Siri or some variety in voice selection. But, no. This topic was never mentioned.
No Meaningful Machine Learning or AI Advances
Unlike last year’s claims by Siri leading up to WWDC 2017 that she was studying and getting smarter, this did not appear to be the case in 2018. Apple did not introduce a meaningful Siri AI upgrade although I suppose the “suggestions” feature loosely fits this description. That feature clearly uses machine learning to assess behavior and suggest actions proactively. However, this already exists in some apps. It may be getting better with this release, but I didn’t see anything stunning.
The new shortcuts feature will be useful, but is neither innovative nor is it AI. This is simply a programmatic rule feature that users can configure to conduct multiple activities through a single command. It is fair to say that the dynamic assignment of a specific phrase to execute a set of actions requires natural language processing (NLP). However, is that really a demonstration of a smarter Siri? It’s a nice addition that a few power users will employ, but the innovation here is really the configuration ease of use combined with availability on your iPhone. This won’t sell additional phones and is unlikely to increase Siri loyalty or delight.
No New HomePod
The biggest rumor in the voice industry was an anticipated lower-priced version of the HomePod smart speaker. This may still come to pass and be announced in Apple’s more traditional September hardware event. However, there was no device mentioned in this year’s event. The HomePod stole the spotlight at WWDC 2017, but to my knowledge was never mentioned at this year’s event.
Even if the company wasn’t ready to announce a new or updated hardware product, you would think that new features might be good candidates for discussion. Then again, some of the HomePod features announced at least year’s event were just delivered in the past two weeks. It could be that it took every developer cycle just to fulfill old promises and that new features were not an option.
A U.S. consumer survey by Voicebot and Voysis found that HomePod has jumped out to 4% smart speaker market share after just four months since launch. Maybe this performance was so lackluster that Apple chose to ignore last year’s biggest star in favor of obscurity. Rumors that Apple has cut HomePod production orders may still be true even if a couple of million devices were sold in the U.S. after launch. Given their past issues with a delayed launch that missed the 2017 holiday season and universal scorn for a limited smart speaker feature set, maybe the decision was to wait until they had a better package of news to announce.
Competing in the Voice Race?
A question remains. How long will Apple users wait for Siri to advance? Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are setting a furious pace of innovation and making it harder for Apple to catch up as each month passes. If voice assistant features turn out to be inconsequential to consumers, then Apple will not pay a price for delay. However, if voice assistants become viewed as central as text messaging is to smartphone use, then the price may be high. You can’t blame voice industry professionals and consumers if they look at Apple and assume the company is following a voice-second strategy. It will be interesting to see if the window of opportunity is closing and if Apple can pry it back open in the future. Let me know what you think on Twitter.
Editors Note: This article was updated on June 5, 2018 to reflect additional information about Siri demonstration during the WWDC event and pre-event promotions.