Is Apple shaking up its Siri team? It certainly seems that way. According to a report from The Information, the last remaining co-founder of the digital assistant, Tom Gruber, has left the company. This follows the announcement from earlier this month that Google’s former AI chief, John Giannandrea, will be taking on a new role as Apple’s “chief of machine learning and AI strategy” and will oversee Siri and other AI efforts.
Gruber, along with Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer, co-founded Siri Inc, the company that created the original Siri app, which Apple purchased in 2010 for $200 million. Siri was introduced in the iPhone 4S the following year, with its then-unique combination of speech recognition and “assistant” features that wowed critics. The honeymoon period lasted a few years, but Siri has since lost ground to rivals like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.
Kittlaus and Cheyer left Apple years ago and founded Viv Labs, another digital assistant startup that was bought by Samsung in 2016 to help shape its Bixby functionality. Gruber, meanwhile, became the head of Siri’s Advanced Development Group. According to The Information, he will be leaving the company to pursue “personal interests in photography and ocean conservation.” The same story also noted the departure of Apple’s head of search, Vipul Ved Prakash, who joined the company in 2013 with the acquisition of his company Topsy, which was integrated into Spotlight to search the web and social media.
A number of reports from inside Apple’s Siri team have suggested that the company’s digital assistant has been hampered by a lack of direction and conflicting interests. For example, since 2012, the team has been led by Bill Stasior, a former Amazon executive and an expert in search. Both The Information and The Wall Street Journal have suggested this may have been a source of friction, as although Siri certainly uses search functionality, its ability to understand users relies on more basic speech and language processing skills.
Apple’s decision to hire Giannandrea, who will oversee Siri but also Apple’s Core ML software, may be a sign that these priorities are changing. As The Verge noted earlier this month, Giannandrea’s background and past work have been focused on natural language understanding, which is arguably one of Siri’s weakest skills. Whether Apple can turn Siri around in the coming years remains to be seen, but it certainly seems that changes are afoot.