Does Apple’s Siri Pose a Serious Threat to Google Mobile Search? – eWeek

By Clint Boulton on 2011-11-29

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) captured the consumer technology market by storm with the iPhone 4S last month, but the biggest piece of news wasn’t about the phone itself so much as its Siri virtual assistant software. Siri marries speech-recognition technology with contextual information that leverages a user’s location and previous searches to help iPhone 4S users look up weather updates, book restaurant tables or complete other tasks. Apple analysts and pundits who reserved judgment when Apple acquired Siri in 2010 went nuts for this technology, calling it anything from a “Google killer” to a harbinger of the future of mobile search interfaces all over the world. The thing is, Siri is far from unique in the market. Google and Microsoft have offered speech-recognition software for years. Microsoft acquired TellMe and uses voice search on its Windows Mobile phones. Google has offered Voice Search on the iPhone since 2008 and its Voice Actions application is considered a poor man’s Siri. Yet Google and Microsoft haven’t been able find a way to get their voice-recognition applications to catch on in the mainstream. Why do analysts believe Apple will successfully productize intelligent speech recognition while Google and Microsoft have struggled? The reason is simple: Apple’s cachet and track record in mobile consumer technology, which includes popularizing the smartphone and tablet. This eWEEK slide show covers what market watchers are saying about Siri and its potential impact on the industry.

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John Gruber

Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber, who is as fervent and meticulous an Apple watcher as there exists today, mused on the impact of Siri. The quibble we’d have with Gruber’s point about Siri using more data sources is that it’s not the data sources that draw people to search. People trust Google. The assumption that people will just drop Google for wholesale voice-activated search is suspect. Imagine the cacophony of people shouting into their iPhones on busy streets. That would be quite a spectacle if that comes to pass. Sometimes the projections of user adoption are too generous. Gruber also noted that Siri couldn’t answer several queries. People don’t tend to complain about that with Google.

Tim Bajarin

Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin, another long-time industry expert whose opinion we respect greatly, also waxed enthusiastic on Siri for Tech Pinions last month. Bajarin’s logic is sound—that is, if Apple builds out the map service it’s supposed to build and partners with Web services the way Google does to lock out the search king. Bajarin even noted: “For this to work for Apple, they need to start acquiring or at least developing tighter revenue-related partnerships with existing databases for all types of products and services. And then make Google or Bing the search engine of last resort for Siri to use if it can’t find it in its own or its partner’s databases at Apple’s disposal. Oh yeah, and tie all of these searches to their own ad engine and drive as much of Siri’s “search” to ones they have a revenue share deal with or own.” So you can see the challenges there. But Google search is still powering millions of Android phones. The last we heard from Gartner, Android commanded 52.5 percent market share. So like Gruber, Bajarin is assuming consumers will start voice searching en masse and that Apple will lock Google out of the iPhone. But just as on the desktop, there is no evidence yet that people want to search broadly with services other than Google.

Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson, founder and managing member of Ironfire Capital LLC, is super bullish on Siri, as you can read in more depth here in his Forbes column. He further believes that when Apple opens up the Siri API to third-party developers, “this thing’s growth and adoption will go ballistic” because Siri will get smarter. Yet Jackson still hasn’t convinced us why people will put aside the typing input to start speaking most of their searches or mobile-oriented tasks.

Kevin Kelleher

Another Forbes contributor, Kevin Kelleher, was also bullish on Siri and the notion that Google should be concerned by the software’s potential. Kelleher doesn’t call Siri a Google killer, but he acknowledges that Apple has moved the needle forward in terms of artificial intelligence in mobile search.

Does Siri Use Artificial Intelligence?

Actually, some folks beg to differ on whether Siri, often labeled a kind of artificial intelligence, is really AI at all. Ed Wrenbeck formerly the lead iPhone developer of Siri, cleared up misconceptions about what Siri is in this piece for the LabVectorForm blog. He says it’s not AI, but rather natural-language processing with context. Certainly, Google is working on similar technology, whether it means something new or simply making Voice Actions more meaningful.

MG Siegler

TechCrunch writer and venture capitalist MG Siegler, like Gruber an Apple watcher of the highest order, is also a fan of Siri’s potential. He likes that it’s powered by voice. We’ll remind everyone—again—that voice has yet to catch on as an input for mobile devices. Not the way tech input is used.

Paul Miller

The Verge’s Paul Miller likes the idea of Siri, though he took a step back to think about the same problems we do in relegating Siri to solely voice input.

Siri in the Living Room

One place we like the idea of using Siri-like voice controls is in the living room, as GigaOm’s Ryan Lawler noted. It just seems right. You walk into your house, and turn on the lights, radio or TV with your voice. It’s a private exchange between you and Siri, without the constant susurration of other voices to interfere with your commands or the rest of your life. Google is working on an Internet of Things application for the living room at Google X, and with Android@Home. Will Siri be similarly applied?

Is Siri Out There?

Ultimately, the idea that Siri voice search will take off into the mainstream even if it gets more intelligent is tough to swallow in its current voice-input incarnation. But we acknowledge the number of keen minds we’ve just quoted, who take a Fox Mulder-like view from the “X-Files” that the answer to the question about Siri search rapidly catching on is “out there.” This slide is a tribute to them.

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