Siri: How far has it come in two years, and how far does it still have to go?

Siri provided a glimpse into an entirely new realm of human interface, and while it's now delivering more than ever before, it still faces significant, and lingering, challenges for the future

A year ago I wrote about the challenges facing Siri and Apple's services. Over the last 12 months, not much has changed in terms of the big picture. Siri processing is still completely server-bound, allowing the network to serve as a single point of failure even for local operations like setting an alarm. Siri still isn't prescient either, providing information only when you ask for it, but not when it might be needed anyway. And it's still not available, beyond dictation, on the Mac. I hold to hope that some of the advances we've seen in OS X filter across to iOS 8, but there are a couple of things Apple has already done that are worth mentioning.

Since launch, Siri's Pixar-like personality has been fantastic, as has its contextually awareness. Together they make Siri less of query/response engine and more of a conversational assistant. The result is that you can talk with Siri, not just at it, which encourages playful experimentation and, overall, makes the technology more accessible to more people. Add to that the new data sources made available with iOS 7 - Wikipedia, Twitter, Bing, Facebook - greater access to other iOS apps, and a new, persistent interface, and the capabilities within context have certainly increased. To wit, you can now perform an impressive amount of tasks with Siri:

So on the one hand we have this amazing service that a four year old who can't even read or write can interact with as a new friend and use to communicate with family in a way previously impossible. And on the other, it's spinny thing, spinny thing, spinny thing, nothing.

What'll be most interesting to see is how that progresses over the course of the next year. What Apple lacks in predictability, Google lacks in humanity. Who will get better at both first? Could what's currently a separate natural language voice interface layered on top of iOS could become a holistic part of the entire experience? Could anything I say or type into iOS get fed through the natural language, context aware, personality-driven interface, and make the entire system friendlier and even more accessible? Could iSight somehow gain a visual awareness to match Siri's audio abilities? Could other sensors make for other intelligent senses?

As much as iOS 7 presages the coming of more functional, dynamic interface, Siri and like systems presage the coming of even more human interface. Apple and others remain in pursuit of it, but right now it remains just that - a pursuit. Part of that is pushing against the limits of technology and privacy. Part remains the single act of willing it through.

There's a reason everything from Star Trek to Knight Rider to Iron Man has rendered this in fantasy long before it will ever be possible in reality. It's the future.

And we need more of it in 2014.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • It's has come a long way in two years but it still has a lot further to go. Since Siri uses Bing the web search results are a lot less accurate than it would be with google, it would be astronomically better if it searched with google instead but that will NEVER happen. Another problem is Siri really can't understand unless your speak extremely clear if you so you'll find yourself repeating the same thing over and over and Siri still not understanding. But the ability to launch apps with it cool but kind of pointless if you don't have very many apps. Sent from the iMore App
  • Really, if I want to do a search, I'll just do it on a computer. I like that I can use Siri to perform functions on a phone. This is an area where Google Now is severely lacking.
  • Wrong. Google Now launches apps as well, but only on Android. As it stands now, I don't believe apple grants the permissions necessary for google or any other app to launch another app on iOS. I have a Retina Mini and a Nexus 4, to me Google Now is much more functional. So many times do I get, "Would you like me to search the web for that" with siri. And bing is a non starter for me. So I have just used google search app. It has voice capabilities that work very well. In either case, most people are asking a question, logical or otherwise, and in that context Google Now wins hands down.
  • What is a Siri? :P Sent from the iMore App
  • Really ? -_- Sent from the iMore App
  • I've been thinking about this since I got my iphone. As a long time android user, I was really excited when Google Now came around because I had always been fascinated by the idea of Siri, but didn't own an iphone. I know iOS has Google Now, but it's not the same. There's so many little things you could do with it on Android that aren't available on the iOS version. The thing I like about siri though is it feels more playful and seems to understand me better than Google Now did. I don't have to repeat myself as often. As many people probably think when they find 3 features on one phone that they love, and 2 on another, I really wish we could combine the great features of each and just make a super Siri. I don't at all regret my switch from Android to iPhone, but there are a few little things that Apple could "borrow" from google. It's only fair since Google "borrows" so much from apple, right?
  • Never heard of it Sent from the iMore App
  • Never heard of what?
  • I agree with you that there are a lot of features that Siri could learn from Google Now. My friend and I compared my iOS' Siri and his Android's Google Now and both came to the conclusion that for now Google Now is superior to Siri in terms of functionality. And, how I wish what you said is true about combining features of different smartphones into one. Imagine the possibilities. Oh well, a man can dream, can I? Sent from the iMore App
  • Siri has come along way. I do find myself repeating words to get Siri to understand what I said. I think they will continue to improve Siri. Or so I hope lol Sent from the iMore App
  • Agree with Antron. I am still doing a lot of repeating with Siri. I was kind of expecting more progress in speech recognition, but I am not seeing much improvement. My biggest complaint comes from trying to get Siri to start a music play list and then shuffle it. Siri's goto mode of operation seems to be "searches" over "commands". She always seems to think I want to look something up in Safari rather than giving her a command. Maybe she's thinks I'm too bossy.
  • why on the iphone 4 has not siri because the iphone 4 can has???!!!
  • Siri DONT use Bing
    Wolfman Alpha Sent from the iMore App
  • Siri gets the job done for me. The inclusion of sports scores and schedules was a nice touch. The naturalizing of the voice makes Siri much enjoyable when you're searching for something or just playing around. Sent from the iMore App
  • Of Siri has come a ways from where she was, but considering she's still server-bound I do expect more intelligent performance and speech recognition. I'm so tired of repeating myself like a nimrod in a movie speaking to a foreign, non-English-speaking person as if yelling will make them understand better.
    Of course, I want Siri to be JARVIS + LCARS all rolled into one with ONBOARD SUPPORT. That's the goal. But I suppose she's off to a fine start. Sent from the iMore App
  • Still think it's too unreliable. The voice dictation in messages is rock solid. Can't understand why Siri fails to understand basic command words. It's a frustrating service, and too slow as well. Sent from the iMore App
  • When Apple introduced Siri with a robotic voice and Google took the human route, it was clear who was going to lead this market. Apple never seemed to realise that Siri should be used as an assistant, not a tool. As for how far it has to go, just look at Google now as Siri is about a year behind.
  • Why is they copying apple all the time?
  • How can they copy something and yet do it much, much better? Also you cannot accuse them of copying Apple since Google Now was created by Google as Project Majel. Apple just went and bought a company they liked with the abilities.
  • Well each year they are making enough progress on Siri. I wouldn't say that it's too much or too little but it's just about right. I believe apple is taking its time and refining Siri as best they can, and I for one as a daily user can attest to the consistency of Siri. However like you pointed out in the article the day they take a few core functions offline Siri will really begin to shine. Dictation, setting timers, reminders, calling, texting, factimeing, without the need for the server back end will be truly beautiful. Who knows though I always suspected that the reason they have it go through their servers is that they collecting massive amounts of data in order to polish and releases a truly amazing Siri sometime soon. Sent from the iMore App
  • Unfortunately, this is an area where Google has been improving *much* faster than Apple. The "Pixar-like" personality is brought up in every article, almost as a distraction from the reality of a truly poor service. Siri's personality mostly refers to how it can give cute responses to a certain range of queries, or react in an offended tone when you swear at it -- which is frequently, when the conversational lags are short enough that Siri is worth the bother to use. I find Siri very convenient to set reminders, middling to poor to query for information, and absolutely useless in any area without a rock-solid data connection. That, after two years, not only has Apple dropped (or declined to pursue) nearly every interesting aspect of SRI's initial vision for Siri, but they have also created a voice control system that is less responsive and less reliable to say "call xxxxx" than my pre-Siri iPhone 4 or even 3G is inexcusable.
  • I do love me some Siri. It is funny that my mom calls her suri lol. Sometimes it does not spell my texts correctly and I wish it could be used without pressing a button on the phone like the moto x Sent from the iMore App
  • I would agree. I can't wait to see the growth and if they could add the layer could really make the feature awesome. Sent from the iMore App
  • Watching these videos I realize how bad is Siri here in Italy!
    It's quite annoying to pay €950 for an iPhone 5 and get a different user experience than other countries have. I think Apple should make all the necessary efforts to give everybody the same functionalities.
  • I really hate siri for its voice recognition capabilities.
    I am from india and unfortunately siri had problems understanding my voice. On the other hand Google now is exceptional in recognition of my voice. Sent from the iMore App
  • As above, unless you're American (or Canadian, possibly) Siri has a long, long way to go. The times I'd find Siri to be useful are generally the times when it's the least useful e.g. in a vehicle. I'm British, and find Siri almost unusable for anything but the simplest of commands - and then with less than 50% success, even in ideal conditions. Poor show.
  • Speaking as someone with a Canadian accent ... sorry, but Siri doesn't work here either. I think if you live in California and talk like a Yank it must be miraculous, but for anyone else, it's just not accurate enough to bother with. Siri cannot do simple basic dictation for me. Not even close most of the time.
  • Siri is a great service, but I think it could be improved a lot as far as usability. Many people I know rarely reach for siri to set an alarm or search something, and I think Apple could find ways to improve this, though I don't know how they'd do it. Sent from the iMore App
  • Two years and Siri still cannot pronounce the common words correctly (like 'shuffled'). You would think Siri would nail those words common bro apple devices. (Hope this doesn't say "sent from imore app) Sent from the iMore App
  • Siri can't understand anyone in our household, and she's oblivious to context. For example, mixing up the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle where we live with Fremont, California. The more you try to correct what you were trying to say, the more confused she becomes. Not worth the trouble.
  • Siri really has improved over time. It's got more jokes in it than it used to have and it has a lot more functional features than when it first started. When it first started in the UK it wasn't that useful as it couldn't give any directions or business information. Over time it has got a lot more functional and fun. It still has a long way to go Though. Overall I really like siri but I never use it on a day to day basis for anything serious. Sent from the iMore App
  • Spinny thing, spinny thing, spinny thing.... Yeah. That sums it up well these days. I've progressed from using Siri for basic things to avoid apps, to not using her for as many things, and now for nothing because Control Center is more reliable and natural anyway. It irks me in an odd way because I really want this to be a way I interact with my devices but it just can't perform up to expectations.
  • Rule Number 5 Rephrased: Do you like acting as inhibited as you are at work in your own house, and having future work evaluations reflect how well you entertain as well as how well you do your job? Then by all means invite people from the office..........>http:\/
  • Siri almost never answers me.
  • What do you ask it? Sent from the iMore App
  • Siri is great as is, I can't wait to use future enhancements. Sent from the iMore App
  • Possibly I am in the minority, but Siri has *never* been able to recognise my voice with any accuracy at all, certainly not close enough for it to be worthwhile to use it. It's just faster to type a query in than say it four times to Siri before she "gets it" (if she ever does). Dictation is accurate only two sentences out of three, so again, it's simply not worthwhile to actually use it. given these basic failures of the recognition engine, Siri is the same now as it was when it debuted and all the "improvements" mean nothing at all. Siri simply does not work.
  • Wow. That's quite amazing how much Siri can do. Sent from the iMore App