Apple announced today that it will be opening up Siri to third-party developers through an API, giving outside apps the ability to activate from Siri's voice commands, and potentially endowing Siri with a wide range of new skills and datasets. The move follows similar announcements by Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, all of which are betting that voice commands and chatbots will be one of the next big computing paradigms.
When Steve Jobs introduced Siri to the world five years ago, it felt like a revelatory advancement. Sure, there had been digital assistants before, but not one you speak to naturally or carry around in your pocket. In the time since, however, this kind of conversational AI proliferated out to lots of devices, with big offerings from most of Apple's major competitors. Google and Microsoft were the major players, but Amazon recently scored a breakout hit with Alexa, and even Facebook is getting into the chatbot game. But as my colleague Walt Mossberg recently pointed out, while the market has developed, "Apple has done shockingly little to capitalize on its lead with Siri."
Can Siri become a platform?
Part of the problem has been that Siri doesn't play nicely with many other services. Unlike the Amazon Echo, which now integrates with 1,000 different third-party services, Siri has remained a fairly closed-off service since its launch. Siri's creators, who have since gone on to launch a competing assistant, Viv, spoke openly about the frustration they felt when Apple elected not to turn Siri into a platform. That all changes today with its new API.
One of Siri's major weaknesses when compared with similar offerings from Google or Amazon is that it doesn't have a ton of personal data about its owner to draw on. There is the explicit information you provide about your schedule or phone contacts, but Apple's stance on privacy puts it at a major disadvantage when it comes to fine tuning personalized assistance. By leveraging third-party services, Siri can begin to develop a much more robust and nuanced relationship with its master.
Amazon and Google have a big head start
Both Apple and Google, which recently announced its own voice-controlled hardware, Google Home, will have to play catch-up to Amazon. While it was basically a non-entity in the space until last year, Amazon's Echo has emerged as a massive hit, and has already racked up over 1,000 third-party integrations and skills.
Onstage today, Apple showed off actions like: WeChat a friend to say I'll be five minutes late. You can ask Siri to book a ride, start tracking a run, or send a payment to a friend. Siri is also a lot more effective when you're using an iPhone in Carplay mode, allowing you to interact with lots of different apps through voice commands while keeping your securely on the wheel.