Asking Siri about “her” past won’t get you much more than a blank screen and an “I don’t like to talk about myself,” implying either a strong sense of humility or a robotic facade meant to keep a sordid past from the public. As the Huffington Post reveals in its “SIRI RISING” story, it’s likely the latter — Siri has had a storied history, from its beginning as a research project at the Defense Department to a deal with Verizon that would see the software pre-installed on Android smartphones and then, finally, an acquisition by Apple.
It’s implied that Apple’s acquisition kept a much-wanted tool out of a rival’s hands, but the truth is that the real winner was Android.
Anyone who has used Siri to do more than start a timer or set an alarm knows the virtual assistant’s limitations. It’s slow, returns “Would you like me to search the Web for…” far too often, and has single-handedly taught the importance of enunciation to iPhone owners. So while it’s easy to call Zooey Deschanel dumb for her conversation with Siri in a widely-mocked commercial, the truth is that we all probably use Siri in the same way. It’s a “smart” tool that really isn’t.
It wasn’t always this way. The original Siri was actually smart, the kind of tool that someone could say they loved without applying a series of modifiers and clauses. Described as a “do engine,” the tool worked with some 42 different services to produce intelligent, relevant answers and perform minor computational tasks. There’s a reason why both Verizon and Apple wanted to sell devices with the technology on board: It worked.
And then Apple killed it. The company most known for user friendliness and software that “just works” took a well-regarded tool, strapped it down, and lobotomized it in its attempts to “improve” its capabilities. Don’t be mad at Siri for being so stupid — if anyone deserves the blame, it’s Apple.
The result of this technological lobotomy set the bar pretty low for other virtual assistants, allowing Google to introduce its Google Now service and capture the hearts of many-a blogger and Android user. Unlike Siri, which requires specific instructions and only works a fraction of the time, Google Now is a satisfying tool that continues to get better as it ages. The service, in conjunction with Google Maps, shows a way towards a smarter, “uber-app” dominated technology paradigm.
Let’s imagine, though, that the Siri-Verizon deal had gone through. It was pretty much a done deal, according to HuffPo, so we very well could have seen some Siri-equipped Android smartphones.
There’s no denying that the old Siri would have been a huge “get” for Android users on Verizon. The wireless carrier has always billed its “Droid” smartphone line as powerful, futuristic tools that allow customers to do what other platforms (read: iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone) can’t. With the old Siri this would have been less a boast and more a genuine statement.
What would have happened, then, if Google had introduced Google Now in an Android-plus-Siri mobile ecosystem? If Verizon’s past dealings are any indicator, things might not have worked out in Google’s favor.
Remember Google Wallet, that NFC-enabled payments option that you see on many urban stores’ point of sale systems but have probably never used? Well, even if you don’t (and I don’t blame you) it’s worth mentioning, because it shows the control Verizon has over the smartphones that operate on its network.
Verizon stopped Google Wallet in its tracks on the Galaxy Nexus, one of the Android smartphones meant to be clear of manufacturer and carrier tampering. Google and Verizon had a back-and-forth over whether or not Verizon had blocked the technology (it had) but the end result is less faith in a carrier-backed mobile ecosystem.
Would Verizon do the same for Google Now? If the carrier felt that Google’s virtual assistant threatened Siri it isn’t hard to imagine. Even if it didn’t, the deal would have meant that some customers would have to choose between Siri and Google Now, while customers on other carriers would just have Google Now (or their own proprietary solution), further fragmenting the idea of what an Android smartphone is.
Apple’s deal with Siri prevented all of this from playing out and transformed what could have been a competitive risk to Google into a series of hypotheticals to be considered years later. The Cupertino-based company effectively killed a potentially dangerous competitor; its tampering with Siri set the bar for virtual assistants low, low, low; and its emphasis on the feature prepared the public for powerful tools that would change the way they interact with their devices.
It’s too bad it fumbled that opportunity with a service whose best function is the ability to tell you whether or not it’s already raining.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]