A new report today from The Information (paywalled, via 9to5Mac) discusses the troubled seven-year history of Apple’s digital assistant Siri, describing it as “a problem” for Apple, and blaming it for the underwhelming performance of Apple’s smart speaker HomePod. Contrasting somewhat with a Siri cofounder’s recent claim that Apple expected Siri to be too versatile, today’s report blames Siri’s original infrastructure for its long-standing performance issues, and adds color to prior reports of behind-the-scenes managerial and engineering turmoil.
According to the report, Siri was more popular than Apple anticipated when it launched in 2011, such that the volume of requests caused server-side unreliability. Infrastructure improvements were soon deemed necessary, and a single rework of Siri’s code cut a feature’s server demands down from 500 to 5 servers. However, subsequent attempts to add new features — including analytics and third-party app support — have been stifled by Siri’s code, which was described at various points as “brittle,” “inflexible,” and “patched up but never completely replaced.”
The report also notes that Apple’s management of Siri has compounded its issues. Siri has chewed through multiple managers over the years, led to disputes between Apple’s natural language and search teams, and generally lacked for focus and vision. Additionally, though it was previously known that Apple’s HomePod was in development for many years, the report says that Apple originally considered releasing the speaker without Siri. HomePod’s team didn’t meet with the Siri group until 2015, after Amazon released the original Echo with Alexa. Then despite years of development collaboration, HomePod was widely criticized for Siri’s poor performance.
Not all of the report is bad news, though. Over the past few years, acquisitions of companies such as Beats and VocalIQ have helped Apple to improve Siri’s multi-microphone speech recognition and conversational abilities. Today, the Siri division is in the hands of Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi, whose track record with regular iOS and macOS improvements is very positive, if not unblemished. So Siri might not be as troubled now as it once was.
Apple responded to the report with the following statement:
We have made significant advances in Siri performance, scalability and reliability and have applied the latest machine learning techniques to create a more natural voice and more proactive features. We continue to invest deeply in machine learning and artificial intelligence to continually improve the quality of answers Siri provides and the breadth of questions Siri can respond to.