With HomePod, Apple may finally get serious about Siri

Siri has lagged behind Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa, but that may be about to change.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
4 min read
James Martin/CNET

Stuck at home on a rainy day, Zooey Deschanel, in long-sleeve pink pajamas, peered out her window and started up a conversation with her iPhone.

"Let's get tomato soup delivered," she said. The phone quickly responded in a friendly voice with a list of nearby restaurants whose reviews mentioned tomato soup and that delivered.


Deschanel on a rainy day with Siri.


That Apple commercial, which aired in 2012, showed off the new Siri voice assistant as a vision of a brainy, always-ready digital helper. Yet Siri was never as capable as the ad let on, and the voice assistant has fallen behind as consumers gravitate toward Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant.

Five years later, Siri takes on new significance as part of Apple's HomePod, the $349 smart speaker it plans to release in December. This moment could give Apple a reason to fulfill that initial promise of what Siri could be, helping frustrated users finally get some better answers. 

But that's far from certain, and you may find yourself disappointed -- and maybe even without any delivered tomato soup.

"It may be a little of an afterthought to a certain extent," Ovum analyst Francesco Radicati said of Siri's pecking order in the Apple portfolio. "They will probably improve it more, but it won't become as big a thing as for Amazon or Google, because for Apple the device is the end all and be all."

Apple just doesn't have as much of an incentive to keep improving Siri, according to Radicati. In contrast, he said, Google is using its Assistant to beef up its search technology and learn more about its users to sell more ads. Amazon, meanwhile, can use Alexa as a new voice-shopping channel for its online store. Yet Apple, which exists to sell hardware, doesn't really need Siri to do that.

Watch this: The HomePod: Apple's answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home

Despite Apple coming out with Siri three years before Amazon introduced Alexa, Apple's smart assistant now clearly lags the competition. Digital marketer Stone Temple published a study in April in which it asked Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana the same 5,000 questions to test their trivia knowledge. Siri responded to just 22 percent of questions and got 62 percent of those answers right. Siri also provided the most answers that were flat out wrong.

Alexa, meanwhile, answered even fewer questions -- 21 percent -- but got 87 percent of them right. Cortana fared better and Google Assistant was the standout winner.

It's worth noting that Siri is limited even more because Apple waited until last year to start connecting its assistant to third-party apps and Apple requires developers to agree to more stringent security protocols to use its HomeKit smart-home platform. That means Amazon's Alexa now pairs with many more connected devices.

Perhaps keenly aware that Siri isn't as good a smart assistant, Apple de-emphasized its voice assistant during its HomePod presentation on Monday at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC. Apple executives instead focused on the device's chops as a premium-tier speaker, mentioning its "spacial awareness," an array of beam-forming tweeters and a 4-inch subwoofer. They also used that pitch to justify the HomePod's price, which is well above Amazon's $180 original Echo and Google's $130 Home speaker -- and seven times that of the smaller $50 Echo Dot.

That decision might please audiophiles -- neither the Amazon Echo nor the Google Home fared well in CNET's sound tests -- but it could disappoint Siri users who were hoping for a change.

"The Siri team has worked very hard to adapt the domain of music in Siri to be even greater and understand more about the questions we're going to ask about music," Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told the crowd at the event. "Since Siri's built in there and you can speak to it, the teams worked hard to make it a great and helpful home assistant, as well."

Although Alexa now has more than 10,000 commands, many of them aren't all that useful. Even the ones that do stand out struggle with visibility in the Alexa Skills Store -- an inherent challenge when you're talking about voice apps. That gives Apple the opportunity to focus on just a handful of commands on the HomePod that can be used across Apple devices and work really well, Gartner analyst Brian Blau said.

Say hello to Apple's HomePod smart speaker

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This less-is-more strategy could work great for Apple fans, but Blau added that we won't know how good Siri on the HomePod will be until next year, after developers come out with apps for the device.

"I expect Siri on HomePod to do well on media (audio and video) actions, and not as well on open-ended questions that require a complete index and parsing of the internet," said Pat Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy.

But it's still early days for voice assistants and smart speakers, so Apple has an opportunity to break into this market despite Siri's current limitations.

On top of that, Siri isn't the only one out there that doesn't fully live up to its celebrity-infused commercials. All these smart assistants still spit out inexplicable answers, respond at the wrong times and often times annoy their users.

"They're all pretty bad," Blau said. "They've all got a long way to go."

First published June 6 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:50 a.m.: Adds more background on Amazon Echo and Google Home.  

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