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How Siri’s restrictive app integration could hurt its already waning popularity

MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIF.—Hey Siri, why can’t I use you on more apps?

Last summer, Apple was busy advertising its latest move to beef up Siri, the personal digital assistant for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. For the first time, Apple said, developers would be able to use Siri with our favourite apps, thus promising a brighter future for the heavily used, but often maligned, voice computing tool.

“Siri,” Apple said in September, when the latest iOS mobile operating system was released, “works with your favourite apps from the App Store.”

But fast forward to today and it turns out few app makers have taken the bait.

Of the top 50 most downloaded apps in Apple’s App Store, only a handful are fully functional with Siri, a USA Today analysis found. They are ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft, WhatsApp Messenger, Pinterest, Twitter and Yelp.

Missing in action: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps, Spotify, Netflix — and many others.

Outside the top 50, Apple says Siri also works with popular apps such as LinkedIn, Skype, PayPal and Venmo.

What happened? Many developers chose not to sign onto the software tools called SiriKit to integrate the assistant into the app, because Apple only let Siri be used in six categories (since adjusted to nine) and “that knocked almost everyone out,” says Bret Kinsella, the publisher of the Voicebot.ai website, which covers artificial intelligence and voice computing. “It was just too restrictive.”

For instance, developers could code Siri into working with apps that made phone calls, hailed rides and used visual search. The command “Hey Siri, get me an Uber (or Lyft)” results in Siri asking what kind you want (i.e. carpool, cheap ride), the estimated time the driver will arrive and if you want to request it.

In contrast, photo-taking apps such as Instagram, shopping apps, navigation apps and rivals to Apple Music couldn’t participate. While Apple says Siri works with YouTube, the results are wanting: Ask Siri to play a specific YouTube playlist, it tells you it can’t find that playlist in your Apple Music. Ask Siri to play clips from the TV show Seinfeld (which are all over YouTube) and it takes you to a sign-up screen for Hulu. What Siri can do is this: “Hey Siri, find me videos of dogs.” Siri will say: “Here’s what I found on the web” and show thumbnails on the iPhone home screen.

Steven Sinofsky, a board partner with investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, said Siri didn’t see much “noticeable take-up” from developers due to its “overall reputation.”

“It could also be that voice control is still too much of a gimmick, especially when your phone is attached to you,” he wrote in a recent Medium post.

Slow uptake by app developers risks further denting Siri’s credibility, already bruised by the growth of Alexa and ambitious advance of rival Google Assistant on Android phones and the Google Home speaker. Despite Siri’s early advantage (it was the first widely used digital assistant of its kind when it launched in 2011) and ubiquity (on more than one billion iPhones), it’s long been the butt of jokes after it failed to improve to the degree users expected.

Its rivals have moved in, soaking up the time and attention of users.

Siri had an average 41.4 million monthly active users in the United States in May, according to a survey of 20,000 people by Verto Analytics, which monitors consumer behaviour. That’s down 15 per cent from the same period a year ago, when Siri had 48 million, Verto estimates.

At the same time, Alexa, starting from a far lower base, saw its usage increase 225 per cent, from 800,000 users to 2.6 million.

Siri still has a big lead over its rivals, thanks to adoption by iPhone. That’s given it a head start in loyalty, too: According to a survey conducted by SurveyMonkey Audience for USA Today, when asked which voice assistant users couldn’t live without, Siri won hands down. Apple says Siri is used by 375 million international users monthly and that it processes some two billion requests weekly.

But Siri is struggling as other assistants get smarter.

Comparing the responses of Google, Amazon and Siri, Google far outpaced both Apple and Amazon in terms of answers it was able to deliver in audio, a testament to the vast database Google can tap.

Apple’s rivals have also gotten developers on board where Apple hasn’t.

Amazon’s Alexa assistant, for instance, just passed 15,000 available “skills,” from playing Jeopardy and finding recipes from the Food Network, to the basics, playing the radio or podcasts on demand.

On Apple’s Siri webpage, the company lists less than 100 ways to use Siri, from setting calendar appointments, searching photos on Pinterest and booking rides on Lyft. (Coming in iOS 11, the new version of the mobile operating system, which will be released in September: translating phrases from five languages, reading QR codes and checking bank balances.)

Amazon is aggressively getting Alexa in more places than just the Echo speakers — this year we’ve seen it show up on new TV sets, a refrigerator and even an internet router.

Later this year, Siri moves to the living room as well, within Apple’s HomePod high-end audio speaker.

By not opening it up to as many different categories as possible, like Amazon and Google, Apple is showing that it wants to be good in a few areas and isn’t willing to go much further. Apple declined to offer comment for this story.

“Siri isn’t going to get better and catch up to Alexa . . . unless she is permitted to fail,” Kinsella says. “That is why HomePod was all about the hardware.”

Siri has improved substantially since its widely panned debut, where it could do a few things correctly and many not so well. But for many consumers who tried it a few times and were disappointed, they may have missed out on the changes.

Now, it’s a matter of managed expectations. Siri is a fine utility for setting appointments, hands-free phone calls, locating addresses of restaurants and little more.

Noah Rosenberg, the former CEO of photo app Pikazo, one of a handful of apps that launched with Siri integration in the fall, says Apple has an education problem.

“One of the challenges with Apple is they are very specific about how you could integrate Siri. There are very particular keywords to trigger. It works if you say exactly what you’re supposed to say, but how would you know that?”

For many users, after that experience, “it’s frustrating, so you just end up typing instead,” he adds.

Apple could argue that it’s an unfair to compare a speaker to a smartphone assistant, but at the end of the year when the HomePod is released, Apple needs to have Siri be truly new and improved, says Jan Dawson, an analyst with Jackdaw Research.

“The bar is set pretty high for them to be a lot better on that device than they are on the iPhone,” he says.

And with 16 million iOS developers as of June, three million more than the previous year, Kinsella doesn’t doubt that many will eventually start developing for Siri.

“This confluence of voice and AI is the most important trend in the consumer space. It’s wide open and consumers really like it.”

Hey Siri, are you listening?