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Apple’s Siri Dilemma

When Apple introduced the Siri voice assistant with the iPhone 4s in 2011, you may have felt it was a revolution. Up till then, voice recognition systems had been hit or miss, and often required intense training to become accustomed to your voice and speech patterns. You even had to use a special mic to get the best accuracy.

With Siri, Apple promised that you could ask plain English questions on an iPhone (and later an iPad) and get a response; well, some sort of response at any rate. Sure, if Samuel L. Jackson asks something, you can be sure Siri will listen and respond appropriately. I suppose the same can be said for any trained performer.

But what about regular people, asking regular things? Well, there have been class-action lawsuits against Apple claiming that Siri just can’t do the things you hear “her” doing in those popular TV ads. Apple’s response would probably be to remind you that Siri is still beta, although you have to look through a few screens on Apple’s site to find that label. I suppose that frees them of any obligation to explain Siri’s missteps.

In fact, I wonder how the public would have reacted to Apple’s new Maps service had it also bore a beta label. But it didn’t, although it does seem as if Apple is right that Maps has grown better. Maybe in a few months it’ll be good enough to really go up against Google.

Returning to Siri, I’ve discovered a number of comparisons against main competition, the enhanced Google Voice Search, with varying results. Before I cover any specifics, it’s important to realize that Google would appear to fare better with direct search queries, but cannot handle the virtual assistant requests that are Siri’s stock in trade, such as setting an alarm or otherwise reminding you of an important meeting or event.

Remember, too, that both Siri and Google aren’t self-contained. They both require access to server networks to retrieve relevant information. Because both are highly imperfect, you can easily manipulate the questions to favor one or the other. That’s the case of one article, for which I won’t supply a link, which even included an interview with someone from Google telling us how great their voice service really is. Yes, Siri failed on most of the questions posed in that article, but I still suspect the motivation behind the writer’s choices.

One highly respected tech site, Ars Technica, did a somewhat informal but fair test of the two services.  Here most comparisons rated equal, with one or the other faring a bit better.

So Google excelled with the response to the question, “Who founded the Free Software Foundation?” This seems to make sense from a political standpoint, since offers a lot of free services, including Android. Siri delivered the standard and irritating “Search the web” response, and you wonder why Siri didn’t just do it for you. Or maybe you could set that as an option if an answer is otherwise not readily available.

I did wonder, though, why Siri flunked the question, “When does ‘Les Misérables’ come out?” There have been several versions of the movie, but the context of the question would mean the version being released next month.

However Siri was guilty of one curious failure, and you have to wonder why. In response to the question “When did Tim Cook become CEO of Apple?” Siri offered to take you to Apple’s site. Really now! Google delivered such search results as Cook’s Wikipedia entry. Fair enough.

Siri also couldn’t tell you “Who painted the Mona Lisa?” Now come on!

In fairness, anything that involves a direct online search is Google’s stock and trade, which is why Siri didn’t rate as high with such requests. You’d think that she’d learn to improve accuracy over time, but I haven’t really seen any real changes, despite the enhancements in iOS 6. But those changes mostly fleshed out Siri’s features.

However, in that recent corporate shakeup, Eddy Cue, Apple’s Senior VP for Internet Software and Services, has taken control of Siri and Maps from departing executive Scott Forstall. Since both services are troubled, and Cue is considered the “Fixit” person at Apple, perhaps we can look forward to improved accuracy over time for both. Maybe Siri will earn her stripes and escape the beta label before long.

In the scheme of things, Apple needs to demonstrate that Siri can realize her promise. Yes, Google is still concentrating on search requests, but it’s only a matter of time before general voice assistant functions are added. Sure Siri has become a sort of cute cultural icon, and perhaps you can forgive the quirks and occasional slow responses. But Eddy Cue and his team really need to step up to the plate and demonstrate that Siri can become something more than a curiosity, and really become a useful service for users of Apple’s mobile gear — and perhaps Macs too if a certain rumor about OS 10.9 is true.