Apple finally opens Siri to third-party developers

As widely expected, Apple is lavishing TLC on its voice assistant, Siri, at this year’s WWDC. The company has just announced it will be letting developers bake Siri’s voice functionality into their apps — so users will be able to tap into third-party services just by saying ‘Hey Siri…’.

While there are some Siri third-party integrations already, such as Siri’s ability to perform look ups via Yelp, for example, or search for content on Twitter, the new capabilities greatly expand the potential for iOS users to call upon Siri, once developers start plugging their services directly into the voice interface.

On stage at WWDC today Apple gave the example of sending a “WeChat to say you’ll be five minutes late” to illustrate how the capability could be used. “Now in iOS 10 we have an intense API,” noted Apple’s SVP Craig Federighi. “In iOS 10, Siri is going to be able to do so much more.“

Other examples he suggested where iOS 10 users might soon be able to call up app services via Siri included comms apps like Slack and WhatsApp; ride-booking with Uber, Lyft and Didi (the latter being a recent Apple investment); photo search, via the likes of EyeEm and Pinterest; pausing and starting workouts in apps like Runtastic and Runkeeper; doing payments to friends, using apps like Number26 and Venmo; and VoIP calling via the likes of Skype and Viber.

“It works great in the car as well,” added Federighi, referencing CarPlay during an on stage demo of Siri’s expanded capabilities.

Amazon’s rival Alexa voice assistant tech, embodied in the Amazon Echo in-home speaker, has long since opened up to outsiders, with the company announcing an API for developers a year ago and the first third-party apps arriving last August.

Since then the ecommerce behemoth has continued to build out dev tools for its speaker-housed voice assistant. Although Amazon’s need for developers to help drive interest in its hardware is rather greater than Apple’s, given the massive installed base of iOS devices. (Amazon does not break out sales figures for the Echo.)

That said, Apple launched Siri back in 2011 yet tight control over app integrations and core voice recognition technology which could often be hit-and-miss have clearly hampered its utility and therefore its usage. Meanwhile Amazon’s Alexa already lets users order an Uber. And only last month Siri creator Dag Kittlaus, who left Apple about a year and a half after it acquired his startup, was showing off his next-gen voice assistant tech, Viv, at TechCrunch Disrupt New York — with ambitions for the tech to become a control panel for all sorts of devices and apps in future.

Google also continues to combine user-data-mining plus AI to push the development and convenience of its own virtual assistant tech. While social platform giants like Facebook are piling effort into building their own AI-fueled assistants. Pressure for Apple to accelerate the evolution of Siri is clear.

As former analyst turned A16z partner Benedict Evans put it in his email newsletter earlier this year commenting on the Uber Alexa integration: “The plain old neutral web isn’t coming back any time soon.”

One area Apple has focused on in the past to differentiate its approach on the virtual assistant front is user privacy. At WWDC last year it showed off an update to Siri called Proactive that added some Google Now-esque predictive features — such as inferring who might be calling from a landline number that’s not stored in your contacts — except the data processing is done locally, on the device (not in the cloud).

It remains to be seen what sort of privacy safeguards Apple will be putting in place as it opens Siri to third-party developers, via the new SiriKit.

Earlier in today’s WWDC keynote, Apple also demoed extended capabilities for Siri on the Apple TV, allowing users to call up videos they want to watch on YouTube by asking Siri to find them, for instance.

It also announced that Siri is coming to its newly renamed macOS, allowing users of its desktop computers to tap the voice assistant to do things like send messages and find files, as well as serving up its customary sass.

Rumors ahead of WWDC had suggested Apple was planning to unbox its own Amazon Echo style voice assistant hardware to provide an in-home housing for Siri. In the event no new Siri shell was forthcoming, although WWDC is dev focused so new consumer hardware would be more appropriately unboxed at one of Apple’s fall or spring launch events.