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Siri vs. Alexa: The good, the bad... or the both?

I've been thinking about getting something that runs Alexa (opens in new tab). Probably an Echo. It's not properly supported where I live, which I'll get to later, but it's interesting technology and I'd like to test it out. What interests me most is how radically, almost diametrically opposed Amazon's strategy has been compared to Apple and Siri.

The two companies, and others, are all racing towards the same finish line — a voice-interface good and ubiquitous enough to become the primary interface for certain tasks — but in very different ways.

Then vs. Now

Siri launched in 2011 alongside iPhone 4s. Previously and app from the App Store, Apple acquired it and turned it into the flagship feature for that year's release. It shipped with fewer partner features that it had as an app, but has added several of them back over the years.

Alexa launched in 2014 alongside the the home hub, Echo. A product of Amazon's Lab123, it was inspired by the science-fiction style voice interfaces made famous by Star Trek. Recently, it even added "Computer!" as a trigger word. Which is brilliant.

Pocket vs. Home

iOS Siri

iOS Siri (Image credit: iMore)

Because Apple launched Siri as part of iPhone, it started off life in your pocket. That led to some compromises, like mobile power limitations, small microphones, and a susceptibility to the vagaries of cellular networking. But it also meant Siri was — and is — with you everywhere. If you forget to turn off your lights at home, you don't have to run back to be within shouting distance of your living room. You can trigger a shut-off from across town or around the world. Because of longstanding issues, Siri hasn't earned the cliché "the best assistant is the one you have with you", but there is some convince to it.

(I can't count the number of times I've walked out of my house only to whisper a command to my Apple Watch on my way to the car.)

Alexa began as a box in your living room. That meant it couldn't come with you everywhere — it was a stay-at-home-assistant only. But it also meant it lived on AC power, could have multiple, beam-forming mics, and could rely on fast, stable Wi-Fi for networking. You may not be able to toggle your plug from the mall or the airport, but if you yelled from the kitchen, and Alexa heard you, you could be damn sure it'd get it right.

Forms as factors

From iPhone, Siri spread to Apple's other devices. Over the years, in successions quick and slow, Siri came to iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and as of last year, the Mac. That's great for ubiquity, since it means Siri isn't just in your pocket, it's on your lap, it's on your wrist, and yes, it's in your living room and on your desk. It's not consistent, though. Different devices offer different features, which means you can't yet count on Siri doing what you want regardless of which version you ask. That's not due to the optimizations, which make sense, but simply to some services missing on some devices.

Alexa's initial movement didn't move it very far — from Echo to Dot. In other words, it stuck to the home. More recently, though, Amazon has been liberating Alexa. That includes the Alexa Voice Service and Amazon Lex. This way, other manufacturers could choose to integrate Alexa into their own devices, from smart fridges to smart phones. It puts Amazon head-to-head with Google's Assistant.

There are almost 30 supported devices now, but only a few are brands as recognizable as Ford, LG, or Lenovo. That's good and bad. It means Alexa will become more ubiquitous and more mobile, but it also means it will face stronger competition for that ubiquity. In other words, if you get Apple, you get Siri. If you want Alexa, you'll have to navigate your way past Google, Samsung, and others.

Language sets vs. Skill Sets

Apple made Siri international almost immediately. Not at large scale, but enough that you could use it in a few countries and in a few languages. But they kept going and growing from there, adding Siri support to host of places and dialects. Siri now speaks 21 languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Malay. And it does it in some 42 countries. Apple TV is even doing multiple concurrent languages now, so you can ask in French for a movie with an English title. Not all languages, countries, and devices have all features, though.

Conversely, Apple's been slow in adding third party support. It took until 2016 to launch SiriKit, the first public API, and even then it offered only a handful of "domains" — types of apps that it could interface with. Apple's approach was to start small but add robust support, meaning less syntax dependence and greater flexibility in the recognition of intent. In theory, that should mean better support but also less support, at least at first.

Amazon has been much more conservative when it comes to languages and regions. From a singularly American start, it's since began moving out to the U.K., Germany, and now internationally. It's only official language support, though, is English and German. What Alexa lacks in linguistics it more than makes up for in integration. I can't even begin to count how many services offer "Skill Sets" for Alexa, and popular ones too. You may have to follow more verbal formulas to properly communicate with them, but that you can communicate with them in vast volume is the attraction. More support, if more rigid at first.

Siri vs. and Alexa

I try to get every new Google phone every year just so I have a point of reference. What it does better I want Apple to learn from and improve on, and what it does worse reminds me that no matter how annoyed I get at Apple sometimes, the grass on the other side has as many barren patches as green spots.

I'm making it a point to do the same with other important technologies. And voice-as-interface is an important technology. Just like I want to feel what the Nintendo JoyCon controllers do with tactile, I want to hear what Amazon does with speech.

I absolutely detest that I'm going to have to hack my way around Amazon not providing Echo support in Canada yet, despite this being 2017 and our being America's comfy winter hat, but I'll figure it out.

What I'm most interested in seeing is how, if at all, the two services compliment each other. Unless and until Apple releases my dream home hub with multi-personal Siri, could there be greater value in having and using both?

If you've got experience using Siri and Alexa together, let me know how it's working for you. And if you have an Alexa product (opens in new tab) you'd recommend I try out, let me know!

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.

  • I live in the US and use both Siri and Alexa. I use Siri on the complete suite of Apple products, iPhone, iPad, TV & Watch. I use Alexa on an Echo and an Echo dot.
    The Echo in the Kitchen is used for questions and timers. The Dot in the BR is used for questions.
    We use Siri for questions.
    We have a significant number of HomeKit devices. Siri and Alexa are both used to control them.
    Siri control of the devices is much more comprehensive than Alexa's
    Some examples on the Lutron bridge, Siri does shades Alexa does not.
    On the Phillips bridge, Siri does color, Alexa does not.
    There are a number of HomeKit devices that Alexa does not have skills for yet.
  • Exactly the same way I have my setup. Any HomeKit devices I buy, have to work on Alexa as well.
  • I like Siri. Using more and more. Actually has made my life a lot easier on using calendar. Even texting Sent from the iMore App
  • Surprised that Alexa can't do color on hue. Even G Home can do color. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Great timing for article. Here voting my brother (can't stand Siri lol). We are both total Apple, Mac, AppleTV's, iPhone households and I'm tech support. One of my things to do was set up an Alexa her received as a gift a couple of months ago. So I download the Alexa app, setup the unit. Start off easy and ask the weather. Alexa gives weather. The he asks it to play music, he says play Blake Shelton - Alexa doesn't understand, we laugh. He asks another question, I forget and Alexa didn't get it. He turns to me and says, so it's just like Siri. We both laughed. He gives Siri a D, it never works for him. I give Siri a C. And Alexa is sitting in a corner. Brother is really upset it can't do movies and play it on the Samsung Smart TV he has. For me Siri is one of Apples biggest embarrassments. Oh yeah, Alexa did answer on an order delivery from Amazon question today though. "It's coming today". They all have a long way to go it be all that helpful.
  • I don't think Siri is one of Apple's biggest embarrassments, I use it daily and it's really useful for me, but it seems to greatly vary in quality from person to person. I guess the biggest problem with voice recognition is everyone speaks differently and there's tons of different languages and dialects, so it works great for some but terrible for others. I'm sure Apple is working heavily on getting it working better for everyone, though
  • I will agree more with JustMeWhoElse. I've used three of the four major virtual assistants (Siri, Alexa, Google) and I have found that Siri never understands me, can't answer my questions, constantly gives me directions to the wrong place etc. What good is having a virtual assistant with you at all times when they never work right. I never use her or try any more. I WOULDN'T call Siri Apple's biggest embarrassment but I also beleive that it isn't anything for Apple to be extremely proud of. In my opinion, in much less time Alexa has surpassed Siri in just about anything. Alexa from almost day one supported all my home automation (Wink, Nest, Z-Wave). She can access many more apps or music lists such as Spotify, Tunein, pandora etc. not just open them. She is by no means perfect! As Rene stated, I can't take her with me. Sometimes when watching TV or just talking to me wife she will go off. My daughters name sounds very similar to Alexa (Eliza) and sometimes when using her name it would go off. Obviously we changed my daughters name (just kidding). Alexa now goes by Amazon. We do enjoy Siri on our Apple Tv but overall I'm disappointed with Apple's implementation for my use case. They need to put a little more time and resources into her
  • Apple will rule them all. iOS 11 is a storm coming
  • Lol do tell Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • iOS 11 will be what they REALLy wanted iOS 10 to be... Thats a famous iMore line.
  • I don't think it's an iMore line so much as it is just a line. Android sites use it for Android devices (the Pixel is good but lacks things like waterproofing and stereo speakers, but the Pixel 2 will be awesome!), Google services (Google TV may not have been on the majority of TVs by summer 2012 like Eric Schmidt said, but Android TV will be different!), and even Android itself (Project Butter may not have fixed performance issues like we thought it would, but the next update will be better!). Windows sites use it, too (Windows Phone 8 may not have convinced anyone to use Windows Mobile 10 will change that!), as do BlackBerry sites (BlackBerry 10 may have been a flop, but these new BlackBerries running Android will turn things around!).
  • Have had experience with Alexa, Google assistant on Pixel and Google home, Siri on all my Apple devices. Siri is last which isn't even surprise and Apple should be ashamed that they put their users thru the crap that Siri is. Alexa and Google are both great, Google more because they have more contextual data and be more useful. But man Amazon is putting a lot of effort on Alexa skills. But I still believe in Google and Apple eventually to take this forward. Google because they are Google and great at everything, and Apple because they have such a rich ecosystem and I believe they will eventually make Siri more intelligent and atleast do 90% of what others do. Cortana is good as well but they have the disadvantage of not being a first party voice app on mobile platform. Interesting to see if this year Apple steps up on Siri game.
  • We use Google Home and it routinely beats them both for our uses.
  • Alexa the good. Siri the bad. That was easy.
  • Not really, some people find Siri better than Alexa, plus Alexa can't be used outside the house
  • I have google home, Siri and Alexa all over the house and for me it is not even close, Google is the hands down winner. At this point really the second that Google home gets Lutron support i will probably stop talking to the other 2
  • I put the Lexi app on my iPhone, full Amazon Echo capabilities using my Amazon Prime account, and I love it. Much more functional than Siri right now. Apple launched Siri several years ago but hasn't done anything with it, really, since then. They have a real history of this sort of thing, and I am starting to have a problem with it.