Not all voice assistants can handle the same requests. We put Siri, Alexa and Google to the test. USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES – When you pose the simplest of questions to Siri and it can't answer "what's 1% of $1 million," yet Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant can, you know just how far behind Apple's assistant has fallen to rivals.
Siri was the first voice assistant, announced in 2011 for the iPhone 4S, but over the past several years, Amazon and Google have rolled over it, by investing heavily and introducing many new features, while Siri "hasn't moved forward much," says Bret Kinsella, who runs the Voicebot.ai website, which tracks voice computing.
Apple traditionally takes center stage at its Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) to unveil new software features to whet app makers' appetites, and often they involve Siri.>
Apple's Siri still has a problem with simple questions (Photo: Screenshot)
Monday, WWDC kicks off in San Jose, California, where Apple will provide a sneak peek at those new features for the next edition of iOS software, which runs on iPhones and iPads.
Here's what we'd like to see for Siri updates:
Retire 'Here's what I found on the web'
Siri is a voice-activated assistant, and thus, should respond with voice answers, just like Amazon with Alexa and Google (most of the time) with the Google Assistant. But Apple often puts in links for answers, asking us to hunt and peck our way to a solution. That may have worked in 2011, pre-Alexa and Google Assistant, but not anymore.
The dream of the assistant is to have a running conversation, not just Q and 1 A. Apple gets it right with some queries. Ask what the weather is today, get the answer and follow up by saying, "And what about tomorrow?" and Siri responds in kind. "Siri, what's the weather today?" "72 degrees." "What will it be tomorrow?" But ask for traffic information to Pismo Beach, California, and after the response ask about the weather, and it returns to your local data. Or, ask when the next calendar appointment is, get the info, and then say, "What time is it?" as in, the appointment, and Siri tells you the local time.
Come on, Siri, we can do better than that.>
Trying to use Siri to book hotel on Trip Advisor (Photo: Screenshot)
Open up Siri to the entire iPhone and iPad
While we can use Siri to hail an Uber or Lyft or pay $50 to a friend on Venmo, it can't book a hotel via an installed Trip Advisor, look up travel information on an installed Google Trips app, or use your voice to see the trailer to Aladdin on YouTube. Siri only works with 10 "domains," certain subject areas, which include payments, rides and photo search, but knocks out so many other categories. Time for an update!
When we posed the question for how to improve Siri on social media, the top reply was this one: "She never understands what I’m saying," noted Lisa Cruz on our Facebook page. "Then I find myself over correcting and feeling like a fool with how I talk to her. I over pronounce everything and speak really slow. Then I get fed up and do it myself." In a quiet room on Memorial Day, we asked Siri how far 2,000 steps are ("Wednesday, August 29, 4001") was the answer. We asked for travel info to Carmel by the Sea, California ("I'm sorry, I don't understand") and OK, this was a trick question, but when we asked Siri to translate "Hello" into English we were told "I can't translate into English yet.">
The Siri Shortcuts app library show widgets for your custom shortcuts. (Photo: Apple)
At least year's WWDC, Apple announced a series of "shortcuts" that would have the voice assistant create "routines" based on your daily usage. For instance, Apple said Siri would notice if you ordered coffee every day with the same app, Siri might suggest a beverage that could be ordered automatically. The problem: too hard to use for the average consumer. You have to go into Settings to find Apple's suggestions, and then remember to utter them aloud to save the keystrokes.
Let's get these ready for prime-time.>
Siri can only play music from Apple Music (Photo: Screen shot)
Have Siri play music from everywhere, not just Apple Music
Ask Siri to play you any song from an app on your phone – and I have Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify and Pandora – and Siri says, "I can't play from" that service. It only works with Apple Music, which charges $9.99 monthly for music streaming. This upsets consumers (at least this one) and "seeds the market to rivals, like Pandora and Spotify," notes Kinsella. Pandora (which has a free tier, unlike Apple Music) recently introduced voice search, and Spotify is testing it as well, says Kinsella. "People will just go to those apps and stay there.">
Vizio TVs work with Apple software to run off iPhone (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
Get serious about HomeKit
The other day I checked out new TVs from Vizio, which have Apple's HomeKit software (tools to work with Siri) built into the system. It was beautiful. You could use Siri and the iPhone to change the channel, find a specific TV show and mirror content from your phone to view on the TV. For instance, Powerpoint presentations, photo slide shows and the like could beam from the phone to the TV just by clicking a button. And your phone acts as a fully functional remote control, complete with volume settings.
The only problem. I know how cool HomeKit is. But most people have no idea what I'm talking about.>
At the Amazon CES booth in 2019, the e-tailer showed off many products that work with Alexa. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
Amazon and Google have been aggressive, getting Alexa and Google to work with thousands of products – 60,000 for Amazon to 30,000 for Google, according to Kinsella. And Apple? Just 287.
That means no products like Ring video doorbell or Nest thermostat with Apple. The good news is HomeKit is coming this year to new TVs from Vizio, Sony and LG. Apple just needs to get really aggressive about bringing HomeKit to far more products as well.
Now, despite the heavy investments and constant drumbeats from Amazon about new features for Alexa, Siri is still the most-used smart assistant – on phones. Voicebot.ai did a recent survey and found Siri with a 44% market share, compared to 30% for Google and 17% for the Alexa app.
But when it comes to smart speakers, Apple has barely made a dent in the market. According to research firm Strategy Analytics, Amazon ended 2018 with a 35.5% market share, compared to 30% for Google and just 4.3% for Apple's HomePod speaker.
"The reality is that Siri does a small numbers of things well," says Kinsella. "It just doesn't do that much."
Could that change this year? The WWDC conference starts Monday at 10 a.m. PDT. USA TODAY will be covering, as always, so stick with us for the latest.
Follow USA TODAY's Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
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