Pixel envy: Apple needs to rethink the entire Siri experience

The tech media has long compared Google’s Pixel phone with the iPhone, despite the incredible disparity in consumer appeal. After all, the Pixel is the only other phone actually made by the company that controls its primary ecosystem. It’s the Android phone by the Android maker.

For the last couple of years watching the introduction of a new Pixel phone, it was easy to imagine an iPhone user looking at the camera features and results and thinking, “I wish my iPhone did that!” This year, while the Pixel 4’s camera capabilities might be better than the iPhone 11’s, Apple has at least caught up enough for it not to be the envy of an iPhone user’s eye.

This year, the thing that makes iPhone users say, “I wish my phone did that,” is Google Assistant. It’s past time for Apple to step up Siri in a big way.

Siri’s squandered lead

Siri was first released as an iPhone app in early 2010. Apple knows something groundbreaking when it sees it, and snapped up the company that originally created Siri, before Android and BlackBerry (remember BlackBerry?) versions could be released. A year later, it debuted as a beta feature of the iPhone 4s.

It proved wildly popular. So popular that the Siri back-end infrastructure couldn’t keep up with demand. No other phone had an assistant like Siri. Apple had a several-year head start on what would become a core feature of all smartphones and, eventually, smart home devices.

As it sometimes seems to do, Apple failed to recognize that its advantage was tenuous and must be vigorously defended. It didn’t invest nearly enough in its assistant technology, allowing Google—and some would say Amazon—to catch up and eventually pass it by. Now, Google Assistant on the Pixel 4 looks like the future, and Siri just feels like a more polished version of what we’ve been using for years.

We need a next-gen Siri, not just a better Siri

Apple has gotten serious about machine learning and its virtual assistant in the last couple of years, going on a huge hiring and acquisition spree to bolster its R&D efforts. But as a customer, I don’t feel like Siri is next-level. I feel like I’m fundamentally using the same Siri I have been for the last seven years.

Siri is dramatically better than it used to be, but it still works in essentially the same way, and does essentially the same things. Say “Hey, Siri” or press and hold the side/home button, and it takes over the entire screen, giving you hit-or-miss answers to certain classes of questions or performing carefully prescribed functions. It is an island unto itself, siloed into its own full-screen interface, and yet requires an internet connection (despite Apple’s stance on privacy and performing operations entirely on your iPhone).