How Siri’s Founders Could Have Built The Next Google

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Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He’s done marketing for Twilio, Asana, and Salesforce and blogs about marketing, growth, and storytelling at Threadling.

It always breaks my heart a little when the startups with the most radiant potential hit their troughs of disillusionment and then cash out to a deep-pocketed buyer.

This is not because I begrudge the founders of these startups the personal wealth or success that comes with their exits. Indeed, the wallets of everyone involved usually get a lot fatter, and that’s fantastic. But these cash-outs make me sad because when rocketships get picked out of the sky by sharp-eyed acquirers, they rarely achieve the heights that had been in front of them.

So it was with Siri, which started its life as an incredible but unusable app for the iPhone 3GS, but could have been the next Google.

The Obstacles to Greatness in Siri 1.0

At the time that Apple acquired Siri (less than six months after it launched), the Siri iPhone app wasn’t close to taking off, and it may have seemed to its founders and investors that this situation was not about to improve.

This is because when Siri was merely a standalone app, it made you jump through an unreasonable number of hoops to access its magic:

  1. Unlock your iPhone
  2. Open the Siri app and wait for it to load
  3. Tap a button to tell Siri you’re about to issue a voice command
  4. Speak your command and wait for the results.

Like a small handful of observers, I was blown away by the tech that made Siri possible and the promise that it held, but even with my degree of excitement: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

It seemed obvious that for Siri to achieve its world-changing potential, it had to be integrated with the OS, and there was no way that was going to happen on the iPhone if Apple didn’t own its underlying tech, right?

Ah, but not so fast.

It is somewhat widely known, but never publicly acknowledged, that a company called Nuance has powered iOS’s (and OSX’s) voice-recognition capabilities since Siri went live.

Unlike many of the things Apple builds into iOS, it does not own Nuance, which has a solid (if fairly boring) business selling voice recognition appliances to enterprises — and a less healthy business selling dictation software to consumers. To own Nuance, Apple would have had to shell out a few billion dollars and inherit 10,000+ employees and a boring business to boot.

For Nuance, Apple just became another customer, licensing its voice recognition tech and integrating its appliances into those data centers Apple was busy building at the time. It’s not obvious why a similar arrangement couldn’t have been made between Siri and Apple, had Siri been in a different position when Apple came calling.

Siri’s Road Not Traveled: The Path of Glory

Indeed, though it may not have looked like it the day Steve Jobs showed up to buy Siri with $300+ million in Apple’s cash, there were a number of paths that could have taken Siri along a much more impactful route—transforming it from an app to be opened on an iPhone into a platform to be integrated into every connected human-computer interface in the world that wanted to come along for the ride

The particular alternative trajectory for Siri I came up with for the purposes of this post goes like this:

2011:

  • Instead of selling to Apple when the iPhone app failed to take off, Siri’s team builds Siri for Android: a deep integration with the much more pliable Android OS.
  • With Android Siri, English speakers with Android phones can download and install it, and when they do, it embeds itself into the OS. All you have to do is put your phone up to your ear and speak your command.
  • Like the original Siri iPhone app, Android Siri will order you movie tickets, make restaurant reservations, and call you a cab, but now that it’s deeper in the OS, the experience of summoning it to action is frictionless.

2012

  • Siri has achieved a basic level of product/market fit, and with some clever marketing and strong word-of-mouth, it has enough traction to go after further investment.
  • Siri’s founders raise a big round to attack the search+transaction opportunity.
  • With singular focus, Siri builds out the team and aggressively integrates more services. After not too long, you can ask it to order you a four-meat pizza and a Coke from Papa John’s. Want 1-800-FLOWERS to deliver a bouqet to mom on Mother’s Day? How about checking available flights for your next trip and booking the best one? Sure!
  • The early inklings of Siri’s transactional business model are starting to appear.

2013

  • After two years of steady improvements and additions, the team launches Siri 3.0.
  • You can now give it access to your email and calendar and watch as it makes predictive recommendations, much like Google Now does today. But while Google Now only sends proactive notifications, Siri goes a step further: She offers to call you a Lyft.
  • Along with the launch of Siri’s predictive task-completion engine, Siri’s team has an even bigger annoucnement: the limited availability of the Siri API.
  • With this API, select partners (like Lyft, as it happens) can build Siri integrations themselves.
  • With Siri 2.0 and the Siri API, the world of internet search is about to get turned on its head.

2014:

  • After turning down an unbelievably massive acquisition offer from Google, Siri secures a deal with Samsung to embed its capabilities into all of Samsung’s handsets by default.
  • Not wanting to get left in the cold and dust by its nemesis, Apple agrees to license Siri’s tech and build it into iOS

2015-2018

  • Siri has weaved its way into connected devices of all kinds. People driving their Teslas are saying “Hey Siri,” and asking it to change the music, send an important email, and get directions to the nearest In-N-Out. People with the latest Apple TVs are asking it to put on the latest Game Of Thrones or switch channels to the Giants game.
  • At this point, Siri will process almost any kind of transaction you can do online and will answer almost any kind of searchable question you have. Need to find out which rental apartments came on the San Francisco market in the last day? Done. Want to add the song you’re hearing straight to your favorite Spotify play list? Just say so.
  • In this brave new Siri-powered world, it has become standard to have transactional conversations with your phone, PC, tablet, or in-car dashboard. The way you used to get what you wanted from the internet — typing in a few keywords and navigating the subsequent links — is on its way to becoming anachronistic.

Dreams of Siri Die (and are reborn?)

Instead of pursuing this or any of the other potential paths to glory and independence, Siri’s founders and/or investors seem to have lost faith when version 1.0 didn’t get traction and decided to take Apple’s cash. Given the pressure and uncertainty and size of the offer, it was not a crazy call.

But making the call to cash out, the minds behind this incredible tech lost control of its destiny. If Steve Jobs hadn’t died when he did, maybe his vision and his furious desire to get revenge on Google might have led Siri along a path to ubiquity, but this was not to be.

Had they played their cards differently, there’s a meaningful chance that Siri’s creators would now be operating a multi-billion-dollar company. Meanwhile, Siri herself would be shaking up the world, changing the way we interact with the internet, and posing disruptive threats to Google.

Instead, it looks like it will live out the rest of its days as a once-hyped feature of iOS: the beauty that could have been, a glimmer of brilliance — faded out and dulled by neglect and the passage of time.

One can only hope that with Viv, the recently announced project from two of Siri’s original founders, the dream will be reborn.