As I watched Andy Rubin’s interview at the Wall Street Journal‘s “D Asia” conference last fall, I became highly intrigued by the comments he made about Apple’s Siri. Rubin told the WSJ’s Walt Mossberg, “I don’t believe your phone should be an assistant…Your phone is a tool for communicating,” he said. “You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.”
Andy Rubin is known as the father of Android and was speaking on behalf of Google. Here’s a link to the interview if you haven’t seen it.
At the same conference, when questioned about Siri, Microsoft’s Andy Lees said it “isn’t super useful.” At the same time, he noted that Windows Phone 7 has a degree of voice interactivity in the way it connects to Bing, and thus harnesses “the full power of the internet, rather than a certain subset.”
But they both seem to miss the fact that Apple has just introduced voice as a major user interface, and that its use of voice coupled with AI on a consumer product like the iPhone is going to change the way consumers think about man-machine interfaces in the future.
I have two theories about the responses from Google and Microsoft. One is based on jealously, and one is future-driven based on what Siri really will become very soon and its ultimate threat to Apple’s competitors’ businesses.
Both Microsoft and Google have had major voice UI technology in the works at their labs for a long time. In the case of Microsoft, I was first shown some of their voice research back in 1992. In Google’s case, people in the know have told me that they have had a similar project in development for over seven years. And in both cases they are behind Apple – especially in Siri’s artificial intelligence capabilities and speech comprehension technology.
Interestingly, even for Apple, it’s taken a long time to get voice technology working correctly. In fact, in the early 1990s, I spent some time with Kaifu Li when he was at Apple working on a speech and voice recognition technology called Plain Talk. At the time, he was considered one of the major minds on this subject and when, after a short stint at Silicon Graphics, he joined Microsoft, one of his key projects was working on speech technology for them. Of course, if you know about Kaifu Li, you know that he left Microsoft to go to Google and was the subject of a major lawsuit between Microsoft and Google because Microsoft thought he would disclose to Google too much of what Microsoft was doing when he joined Google.
Microsoft and Google, especially since they had the mind of Kaifu Li working on various projects while he was at these companies, can’t be too pleased that Apple was the one to actually harness voice and speech comprehension ahead of them. You can bet that if either announced a breakthrough voice technology, they would be touting it as loudly as possible. Instead they are downplaying it.
So that’s the jealousy theory, but the real reason these two companies hate Siri is because of what it will become in the very near future.
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In case you haven’t noticed it yet, Siri’s voice technology is actually a front-end to some major databases such as Yelp, Wolfram Alpha and Siri’s own very broad database. What it’s really doing is serving as the entry point for searching these databases. So I can ask Siri to find me the closest pizza joint and it quickly links me to Yelp, then to Google maps. On the surface this might look good for Google and Yelp since it ties them to these third-party sites that get the advertising revenue from this search. But what if Apple owned their own restaurant recommendation service and mapping system? They could divert all of these ad revenues to themselves. Here is an obvious question, then: How long do you think it’ll take before Apple buys Yelp or Open Table, and MapQuest or a similar mapping service?
How about searching for autos? Ask Siri where the closest BMW dealers are. It comes back and shows you the three or four BMW dealers within a 25-mile radius on a Google Map. But what if it could also tie you to Edmund’s database and instantly give you ratings of their cars and dealers running specials? Or perhaps you’re looking for an apartment in Chicago? Ask Siri about available apartments in Chicago and someday it could perhaps link you to Apartment Finder. And while Apple might not need to own this database, Apartment Finder could be Siri’s preferred first site to “search” for apartments and Apple would get a share in ad revenue from these searches.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear to me that Apple has just scratched the surface of the role Siri will play for them in driving future revenue. At the moment, we are enamored with its ability to enhance the man-machine interface. But that’s just the start. Siri is actually on track to become the first point of entrance to “search” engines of all types tied to major databases throughout the world. It will become the gatekeeper to all types of searches, and in the end control which search engine it goes to for its answers.
For this to work for Apple, they need to start acquiring or at least developing tighter revenue-related partnerships with existing databases for all types of products and services, and then make Google or Bing the search engine of last resort for Siri to use if it can’t find something in Apple’s own (or its partner’s) databases. Oh yeah, and tie as many of these searches as possible to their own iAd platform.
Yes, Siri is an important product for enhancing our user interface with the iPhone. But Siri is in its infancy. When it grows up, it will be the front-end to all types of searches conducted on iPhones, iPads, Macs and even Apple TV. If I were Google or Microsoft, perhaps I, too, would be downplaying the impact of Siri, since they know full well that it’s not just a threat to their product platforms, but to their core businesses of search as well. They should quite concerned about this since Apple is taking aim at their cash cow search businesses and could impact their fortunes in the future.
For Apple’s investors, the call for them to start paying dividends on their cash hoard is too short-sighted. Instead, they should be encouraging Apple to start buying up as many databases and services as they can and begin the process of entrenching Siri’s role as gatekeeper when searching, raking in the search ad revenue for themselves.
By the way, at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung showed off both voice and gestures for navigating their smart TV. These are worthless unless they are tied directly to rich databases that these user interfaces control. When Steve Jobs told his biographer that he “nailed” smart TV, I believe one key piece of this will be how Siri will be tied to a rich database so that when you ask for any video program or content you want to see, it will reference powerful databases tied to Siri’s user interface and look for all available material related to your request. Samsung should be just as concerned about Siri as Microsoft and Google are, since Apple’s software wizardry could leave their voice and gestures impotent out of the gate.
So don’t think of Siri as just a voice interface. Rather, think of it as the gatekeeper to natural language searching of diverse databases and search engines that Apple will link to an ad model which could eventually make Apple the third major search company in the world someday.
Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.