Apple’s (NASAQ:AAPL) long-time Siri leader has reportedly been ousted from the position he held since 2012. The company’s recently hired SVP of machine and AI learning is looking to close the gap with Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Alexa and Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Assistant. That means a shift in strategy, and new leadership for AAPL’s virtual assistant.
Report: Apple’s Siri VP Out
According to a report published by The Information, Apple’s Siri VP Bill Stasior is out after seven years. Citing five people “with knowledge of the matter,” The Information says that John Giannandrea — the recently hired (from Google) SVP of AI and Machine Learning — made the move as the company ramps up efforts with Siri. Giannandrea hopes that Siri can catch up to rival voice assistants Alexa and Google Assistant.
The change in leadership (AAPL is apparently on the hunt for a new person to head up Siri), comes with a major shift in strategy. The Information’s sources say that instead of the minor incremental improvements in Siri that Apple has been pushing out in annual software releases, the focus will be on long-term research. That may mean that Siri won’t get “smarter” in the short term, but if the AI and Machine Learning head’s gamble pays off, Siri could become considerably more powerful in coming years.
Apple’s Squandered Lead
When it released Siri with the iPhone 4s in 2011, Apple became the first of the big-tech companies to offer a voice-activated virtual assistant. However, despite having the early lead, Siri has been eclipsed by the competition. Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and even Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Cortana routinely score better than Siri when virtual assistants are tested.
The big difference is that the competition has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Apple began an AI push last year with the hiring of Giannandrea from Google, and now the focus is finally on making Siri better. Significantly better.
Why the Need for a Better Virtual Assistant?
Siri isn’t a product that Apple sells, so it doesn’t have a line item that would translate into revenue or profit that might impact Apple stock. However, its virtual assistant is increasingly a key part of the functionality of most Apple products. Siri started on the iPhone, but is also on the iPad, Apple Watch and Mac computers. When the 4th generation Apple TV was released in 2015, a key features was its Siri remote, which brought voice search to AAPL’s set-top streamer.
Siri is critical to the HomePod, Apple’s highly anticipated (and late to market) smart speaker. Prior to its release, there were expectations that the HomePod could move the needle for Apple stock. Smart speaker sales were on fire and growing as consumers snapped up the devices. However, the HomePod landed with a thud and that was the point where Apple seemed to realize that Siri was seriously falling behind the competition. The HomePod’s high price hurt sales, as did the lock-in with Apple Music.
However, Siri’s poor performance compared to Alexa in an Amazon Echo or Google Assistant in a Google Home speaker was immediately obvious.
Cult of Mac is a website that tends to be very pro-Apple, and its review of the HomePod was damning, especially when it came to Siri:
“Apple made the best smart speaker it could. It’s just that Siri isn’t anywhere near good enough, and it doesn’t seem like Apple knows how to fix it. Year after year, Siri’s ability to recognize and act on the simplest commands continues to be a bad joke.”
When pro-Apple websites are that critical of Siri, it’s time to take stock. Especially when virtual assistants are becoming a key feature of products.
Apple’s hardware design and operating system integration helped it to sell the billion+ iPhones that drove APPL stock for the past decade. But it’s increasingly apparent that Siri integration is going to be critical for selling Apple devices in the future. With Siri unable to keep up with the competition, AAPL has to move in a meaningful way to turn a liability into an asset. That likely means giving up the usual minor improvements for this year, while focusing on the research needed to drive big gains next year.
The recent shakeup in Siri leadership is good news for AAPL investors, because it means Apple has finally woken up to the seriousness of the situation and is moving to fix it.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.