(Repeats story first published on Friday)
By Stephen Nellis
June 2 Apple Inc is expected to
announce plans this week to make its Siri voice assistant work
with a larger variety of apps, as the technology company looks
to counter the runaway success of Amazon.com Inc’s
competing Alexa service.
But the Cupertino, California company is likely to stick to
its tested method of focusing on a small amount of features and
trying to perfect them, rather than casting as wide a net as
possible, according to engineers and artificial intelligence
Currently, Apple’s Siri works with only six types of app:
ride-hailing and sharing; messaging and calling; photo search;
payments; fitness; and auto infotainment systems. At the
company’s annual developer conference next week, it is expected
to add to those categories.
Some industry-watchers have also predicted Apple will
announce hardware similar to Amazon’s Echo device for the home,
which has been a hot-seller recently. Apple declined comment.
But even if Siri doubles its areas of expertise, it will be
a far cry from the 12,000 or so tasks that Amazon.com’s Alexa
The difference illustrates a strategic divide between the
two tech rivals. Apple is betting that customers will not use
voice commands without an experience similar to speaking with a
human, and so it is limiting what Siri can do in order to make
sure it works well.
Amazon puts no such restrictions on Alexa, wagering that the
voice assistant with the most “skills,” its term for apps on its
Echo assistant devices, will gain a loyal following, even if it
sometimes makes mistakes and takes more effort to use.
The clash of approaches is coming to a head as virtual
assistants that respond to voice commands become a priority for
the leading tech companies, which want to find new ways of
engaging customers and make more money from shopping and online
PATH TO THE MONEY
Now, an iPhone user can say, “Hey Siri, I’d like a ride to
the airport” or “Hey Siri, order me a car,” and Siri will open
the Uber or Lyft ride service app and start booking a trip.
Apart from some basic home and music functions, Alexa needs
more specific directions, using a limited set of commands such
as “ask” or “tell.” For example, “Alexa, ask Uber for a ride,”
will start the process of summoning a car, but “Alexa, order me
an Uber” will not, because Alexa does not make the connection
that it should open the Uber “skill.”
After some setup, Alexa can order a pizza from Domino’s,
while Siri cannot get a pie because food delivery is not – so
far – one of the categories of apps that Apple has opened up to
“In typical Apple fashion, they’ve allowed for only a few
use cases, but they do them very well,” said Charles Jolley,
chief executive of Ozlo, maker of an intelligent assistant app.
Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said the company does not
comment on its plans for developers.
Amazon said in a statement: “Our goal is to make speaking
with Alexa as natural and easy as possible, so we’re looking at
ways to improve this over time.”
SIDE DISH, NOT ENTREE
Apple’s narrower focus could become a problem, said Matt
McIlwain, a venture capitalist with Seattle-based Madrona
The potential of Apple’s original iPhone did not come to
light until thousands of developers started building apps.
McIlwain said he expects Apple to add new categories at its
Worldwide Developers Conference this week, but not nearly enough
to match Alexa’s number of skills.
“To attract developers in the modern world, you need a
platform,” McIlwain said. “If Apple does not launch a ‘skills
store,’ that would be a mistake.”
Neither Siri nor Alexa has a clear path to making money.
Siri works as an additional tool for controlling traditional
apps, and Apple pays money to owners of those apps. Alexa’s
skills are free, and developers are not paid.
At the moment, because of their limits, voice apps are “a
side dish, not the entree,” according to Oren Etzioni, CEO of
the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Amazon was wise to not commit to an economic model at such
an early state, Etzioni said. “Once a successful economic model
for developers emerges, people are going to gravitate to it.”
(Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Peter Henderson and