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Apple's Siri Shortcuts app makes the assistant more customizable

The new feature works like the service IFTTT, which lets you cook up your own commands for your devices.

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Siri Shortcuts lets people create customized commands.

Screenshot by CNET

Apple on Monday introduced a new app for Siri called Shortcuts, which lets users create personalized requests for the voice assistant.

With the new app, people can create customized commands, like setting up a request that brings together a surf report, current weather, travel time to the beach and a sunscreen reminder, all by just saying, "Hey Siri, surf time." People will be able to use the new app on the iPhone, iPad, HomePod or Apple Watch, through Apple's new iOS 12, which Apple announced Monday and should come out later this year.

The new feature appears to work like IFTTT, an independent and free web-based service that lets users create "applets," such as receiving a phone notification every time your favorite sports team is about to play. Amazon in April introduced a similar feature called Alexa Skills Blueprints.

"We wanted Siri to be able to do much more for you," Craig Federighi, Apple's head of software, told a crowd at the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference Monday in San Jose, California, "and we're doing that by taking advantage of the power of apps."

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Introducing substantial improvements to Siri could help Apple get back into the voice assistant game, where it's fallen well behind its rivals. A better Siri could entice more customers to buy Apple's iPhones and pricey HomePod smart speakers, enabling the company to build up its position in the burgeoning smart home market.

But, being able to do all that will be a big challenge, even with Apple's advantages of a loyal fanbase and enormous resources.

Apple was the first of the major tech companies to release a digital assistant, coming out with Siri in the iPhone 4S in late 2011. Despite that early start, Siri is now broadly seen as lagging competitors, particularly Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Those rival assistants are housed in more gadgets, offer more apps and, studies have found, correctly respond to more questions.

The Shortcuts app may help narrow the gap with rivals. It will suggest premade commands for users, or people can make their own to, for instance, quickly adjust an Apple HomeKit-enabled smart thermostat and turn on a connected fan with one command. Apple will also suggest shortcuts in other apps, like suggesting assigning a Siri request to find your keys through the Tile app.

Additionally, Siri Shortcuts will take Siri a step further as a virtual assistant, with the digital helper proactively suggesting actions for users on their phone lock screens. Those will include turning your phone to Do Not Disturb in a movie theater or suggesting you call your grandmother on her birthday.

As part of its efforts to grow in the voice assistant world, Apple released the Siri-powered HomePod in February, bringing its first smart speaker to the market. The company is also building up SiriKit, its tools for third-party developers to create apps for its voice assistant, including adjusting a smart thermostat, hailing a Lyft ride or sending a text message.

But, with the HomePod's $349 price tag -- well above the $50 for the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini -- the device is reportedly showing lackluster sales, illustrating that Apple still has a long way to go if it hopes to catch up to Amazon and Google.

iOS 12: Siri shortcuts, group FaceTime and "Memoji" -- Animoji of you.

WWDC 2018: Everything Apple just announced.