If you follow Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), you’re probably still working through the details of Wednesday’s big iPhone 5 event, but try thinking back a year. Do you remember the star of 2011’s iPhone event? That would have been Siri, Apple’s intelligent voice assistant — an iPhone 4S exclusive. People went gaga over Siri, with analysts using superlatives like “pivotal technology” and Apple giving it prime billing.
During the iPhone 5 event, Siri wasn’t exactly absent, but its role was downplayed, with the primary mention being its availability on the revamped iPod Touch and a quick demo of Siri giving driving instructions.
So what happened? Is Siri in the doghouse?
Don’t worry, Siri is not only safe but is likely to become an even more integral part of Apple’s product strategy as it’s tweaked, gains capabilities, is integrated into other apps and becomes available on a wider range of Apple’s mobile hardware.
Three primary factors account for why Siri took a backseat on Wednesday — and none of them means Apple doesn’t have a significantly better version on tap.
1. The iPhone 5 Didn’t Need Help
When Apple released the iPhone 4S in 2011, it offered improvements over the previous year’s model, but they were all under the hood. The 4S looked virtually identical to the model it was replacing — and that’s a tough sell. To quell some of the criticism and to give the iPhone 4S that special something (and a reason for owners of older iPhones to upgrade), Siri was heavily promoted.
Few people will mistake the iPhone 5 for the previous model. It received a number of upgrades over the iPhone 4S, including some key ones such as 4G support, a new case style and the first expansion of the iPhone display since the original was released. Apple had no need to play up Siri, even with it’s improved capabilities, because the iPhone 5 is already a big enough upgrade for the hardware to stand on its own.
2. Siri Received Coverage at WWDC
Apple announced iOS 6 at its World Wide Developer Conference in June, and Siri received considerable prime-time developer and media attention. New capabilities relating to sports, restaurants and movies were outlined, along with additional language support, Twitter integration and the news that Apple was working with a dozen automakers to integrate Siri in their vehicles.
These are all big and point to a much more useful Siri when the new operating system is released on Sept. 19.
With WWDC getting scads of attention just a few months ago, Apple likely felt the Siri pump had been sufficiently primed.
3. Apple Doesn’t Want to Draw Comparisons — Yet
It’s not exactly a secret that Siri has suffered hiccups in its first year of release. From apparent performance degradation to its relative uselessness outside of the U.S. (for Canadians like me, Siri can take appointments, but it can’t tell me where the nearest coffee shop is or whether it’s snowing outside), Siri has been a work in progress.
After the initial rush of asking Siri questions as a party game, people noticed its limitations and began trashing it as failing to live up to promises. Apple has stressed Siri is a beta product, but that hasn’t quelled the criticism.
Then there are competing voice-recognition assistants, including the one Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has included in the latest version of its Android operating system. Reviewers have been giving Google’s version the nod over Siri on a fairly regular basis. That also goes for the Siri version included in the iOS 6 developer release.
Given this climate and its aversion to negative publicity, Apple would feel no need to openly invite comparisons. The company has been sensitive to accusations of overhyping artificial intelligence features ever since it was burned so badly with by Newton handwriting performance, so it’s become more cautious in how it promotes Siri.
Destined for Bigger Things
Don’t expect Siri to go away anytime soon. But do expect it to remain in the background. The novelty is over, and now it’s time for Siri to transition from a standalone product to being a key enabler for a slew of other Apple apps — Maps and iMessage, for example — and with Eyes Free, the key to Apple’s plans for auto integration.
Patently Apple just dug up this patent application that suggest Apple is investigating using Siri to control iTunes on Mac computers. And of course, it’s been tossed around as a potential killer feature on an Apple-branded TV.
Siri will undoubtedly remain as a product name and retain its own key features, but you can count on Apple having much bigger plans for it in the long run.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.