Gizmos

How Apple Can Make Siri Better

Hey Siri, can you learn to do some more stuff?

Siri on iPhone and a smart speaker.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, kicks off on Monday in San Jose, California. We’ll get a first look at the newest updates in store for the iPhone, Apple Watch, Mac, and other Apple products. We’re not expecting much in terms of whizz-bang feature announcements this year; the company has reportedly decided to take a step back and hone its existing software offerings. However, we’ll still see improvements to Apple’s operating systems.

Apple would be smart to give Siri priority among its consumer-facing updates. Smart assistants have evolved rapidly over the past few years. While Apple first brought the idea of a personal digital assistant mainstream by introducing Siri in 2011, competitors such as Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa have by many measures surpassed Siri’s capabilities. WWDC is Apple’s next chance to show the world that Siri can be every bit as useful, customizable, and accurate as other assistants, but there are five main areas Apple needs to address to prove this.

Greater Integration With Both Built-In and Third-Party Apps

SiriKit allows developers of nine kinds of apps, including messaging, payment, and workout apps, to integrate with Apple’s assistant. While this covers a wide range of capabilities—dictating messages, starting workouts, or hailing a Lyft—Siri would be much improved with further integration into third-party apps. Amazon’s Alexa leads the charge here with more than 30,000 Amazon-made and third-party skills at its disposal in the U.S. alone.

One of the promises of Siri’s technology on the iPhone was that it would help make tasks and navigation less time-consuming. We should be able to use Siri in a broader set of apps and in specific contexts. For example, you can currently use Siri to send an email or to read the most recent email messages to you, but it would be helpful if you could get more specific: “Hey Siri, open John’s last email to me.” For some queries, Google Assistant offers related follow-up options you can tap on below its initial response. When asked about the status of an upcoming flight, it was able to pull the flight information from my email without my remembering the flight number, then offered options for directions to the airport and the weather.

Eliminating the Walled Garden on HomePod

One of the biggest criticisms of Apple’s Siri-controlled smart speaker, HomePod, was that it is designed to work exclusively with Apple Music. For those who prefer other streaming music platforms, there’s a doable workaround: using AirPlay on your iPhone. But that’s not the smooth functionality we’d expect from a $349 smart speaker. Spotify has more than 170 million monthly active users, and Pandora has about another 75 million. Apple would be better served to let HomePod owners ask Siri to play music on a broader variety of services.

Some early reviewers also weren’t impressed by Siri’s song-identification or recommendation smarts; if expanding beyond Apple Music is a definite no-go, Apple should at least improve Siri’s music-related capabilities.

Options for Customizability and Personalization

Amazon recently debuted Blueprints, a way for Alexa users to create their own custom skills and question responses. The ability gives smart speaker owners unparalleled control over their device and the ability to improve its overall relevance and utility.

While Apple doesn’t need to copycat Amazon in this regard (although maybe it should), Siri would be vastly improved if users could opt to feed her more personal information to make her responses more accurate and relevant. Perhaps Apple could let users customize their Siri experience by platform or add a new personalization section where you can opt into or out of various capabilities.

To date, Apple has kept Siri simple and straightforward. While it might complicate the iOS setup process, the ability for Siri to answer questions about where things can be found in the home, or be a source for instructions for housesitters or babysitters, would make her a more valuable assistant.

Better Contextual Awareness

Siri would also become a more powerful tool if she better understood your needs throughout the day. Based on the location of your phone, Siri should be able to distinguish whether you’re at home, traveling, or at work. She should also be aware of what time of day it is. With those two pieces of knowledge combined, she should be able to better serve up calendar information, news, or music that’s relevant to the situation at hand.

Given Apple’s goal of making Siri a conversational assistant, she could get more proactive in the information and services she provides. For example, if you ask about your calendar for the day and you’ve got a meeting across town, perhaps Siri could follow up with an offer to schedule an Uber for that appointment.

Fresh New Voices

Apple already offers a variety of voice options for Siri users, including male and female voices in American, British, and Australian dialects. However, Apple could easily give Siri some pizazz by offering users further vocal variety. Taking a cue from Google—which is adding John Legend’s voice to its Google Assistant lineup—Apple could bring on some celebrity vocal talents. In the past, Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, and the Rock have lent their faces to Siri ad campaigns. If Apple were to slate one celebrity to lend their voice to Siri, the Rock would be an excellent choice. He is a beloved guy with an easily recognizable voice and a vast social media following. It would be delightful to virtually order him around as Siri.