Why So Siri-ous?

Looking over the web and especially the blogosphere over the past couple of days, it seems there is only one thing everyone wants to talk about: Siri. With the iPhone 4S now in millions of peoples’ hands, as expected, it’s clearly the stand-out feature of the device.

But wait. Voice technology has been around for a long time. Or, as one TechCrunch commenter succinctly put it on Erick’s video demo post of Siri: “4 year old software, 8 year old technology.” This recalls one of my favorite aspects of tech blogging. You write about something, then everyone and their mother rushes out to yell something along the lines of “OLD!”. Or, even better, competitors trip over themselves to yell “FIRST!”. So if the stuff Siri is doing is old, and if others did do it FIRST, then why is everyone so damn excited about the feature?

There are a few reasons. But the simplest answer is one that has played out time and time again over the past several years: Apple did it right.

No, Apple is not the first to implement voice technology. Nor are they the first to do it on a phone. In fact, Siri isn’t even Apple’s first foray into voice controls. But their first attempt on the iPhone, quite frankly, sucked. It’s no surprise that no one used it. As for Siri, it’s a company that Apple acquired — they were actually doing some of the same things as a stand-alone third-party app previously. Credit Apple for having the vision and foresight to realize that their previous voice control offering wasn’t competitive, and that system-level integration of Siri into iOS could be magical.

What about Google? It’s true that they’ve been far ahead of Apple in the voice control space for years now. I recall being at an event that Google held in August 2010 in which they showed off some new voice functionality for Android. As I wrote at the time, “Google Unveils Awesomely Fast And Accurate Voice Actions For Android“. And that was true. At the time.

But Google failed on a few fronts with this functionality. First of all, while on paper and in staged demos Google’s technology looks great, they failed to make it compelling enough to entice everyday users to use it. They had a pre-defined set of instructions as to what you could say to get the system to work, and they were pretty rigid. By comparison, Apple placed an emphasis on natural language usage with Siri. There are a number of ways to say something to trigger a certain action. You don’t have to remember a set of commands.

Put another way, Google’s voice search and Siri may look comparable on paper. But in reality, one is something best used by a robot, the other is something best used by a human. And robots don’t buy phones — at least not yet.

In the bigger picture, this is something that Apple seems to understand time and time again that their rivals do not. Technology is an ever-important part of everyones’ lives, but the only way to make it truly accessible to the vast majority of users is to humanize it. That’s Siri. Google, Microsoft, etc — they all fail miserably at doing this.

I’m sure in a few weeks, we’re going to see Google come out and say, “wait, but look, we can do all of the stuff Siri can do too!” They’ll tweak their voice recognition to pick up more human phrases, etc. But it won’t matter. They already lost the mindshare battle. Yes, Android had better voice controls first, but if you ask anyone on the street right now which is the phone with the awesome voice controls, they’ll tell you it’s the iPhone.

The funny thing is that while Apple are normally brilliant marketers in this regard, they’re actually holding back on Siri right now. Why? Because they consider the product to still be in “beta”. And while every Google product starts in beta, it’s not a tag Apple takes lightly. Talking with them leading up to the launch, they clearly feel that Siri as it stands right now, while a great first step, is nowhere near where they want it to be. It may take six months to get there. It may take a year. But when Apple does get it to where they feel it’s ready, I bet we’ll see a massive marketing push. And we may even see it come to other devices at that point.

Earlier today, Search Engine Land did a nice side-by-side comparison of Siri versus Google voice actions. Again, on paper, they’re similar, but in reality, they’re far apart right now. But the more interesting aspect of the piece to me was when author Greg Sterling goes against the this-will-kill-Google early reactions and notes that Siri should lead to even more Google searches. I totally agree. For now.

But again, this is a beta product. Does anyone really think Apple isn’t going to work quickly to integrate it with other data partners? Imagine it tied to Quora. Imagine it tied to Twitter (and how is it not already?!). Imagine it tied to Foursquare. Imagine it tied to… Facebook. If and when that happens, Google will have a very legitimate reason to be concerned.

Right now, Google is a middle man between us and information. And we love Google for it. There’s simply too much information out there for anyone to find by themselves. There needs to be a middle man. We need Google. Apple has been hinting for a while that mobile applications could change this game. But apps are just a new, perhaps more accesible wrapper of information. There still needs to be a search mechanism powering the discovery of information — that’s why everyone keeps insisting that Apple will eventually get into the search engine business.

Well they have. But not in the way that everyone was thinking. Siri is their entry point. Again, it’s a small step right now, but it has the potential to be massive. (Perhaps the more pressing question: is Apple okay relying heavily on a third party, Nuance, for what may become a core component of their stack?)

And that’s another fundamental reason why people are so excited by Siri where they aren’t by Google voice search. Google voice search, like basically every Google product, is ultimately a way to drive more Google searches. It’s just a new layer. Even if people don’t fully understand that, they sense that it doesn’t point to something totally new. Siri does point to something totally new. With it, Apple wants to change the information search and creation paradigm. It’s an evolution powered by mobile and a new, more powerful input: voice.

This is a vision that has been 24 years in the making at Apple. The video below first re-surfaced around the launch of the iPad. “Apple envisioned their tablet 20+ years ago!,” everyone yelled. But at the time, everyone overlooked the arguably more powerful aspect: natural language voice interaction. Apple was quietly working on that too. And now it’s here. Heralding the future.