Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

Summary: Siri is emerging as Apple's game-changer that could put serious pressure on Google. But, first Apple needs to figure out web search integration.

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Apple's iPhone 4S was a disappointment to all of those who were expecting a redesigned iPhone 5, but in the grand scheme of the things the launch of the iPhone 4S may turn out to be Apple's Chamber of Secrets.

Forgive the Harry Potter reference, but Chamber of Secrets is the second book in the seven-book Harry Potter series, and while it's generally the least favorite of the books among Potter fans, by the time you get to the final book you realize that Chamber contained critical plot information that foretold important future events.

The fact that the iPhone 4S was an incremental hardware upgrade and lacked a new design has largely overshadowed its one revolutionary feature that could shape Apple's future: Siri voice commands and voice-activated search.

Apple has limited Siri to the iPhone 4S to start, but that probably has less to do with Siri needing extra computing power on the phone and more to do with Siri still being in beta. Since Siri requires a cloud connection, limiting Siri's spread at first gives Apple the opportunity to stress-test its data centers and scale up for the future.

Even with its beta quirkiness, Siri is impressive. While Google Android and Windows Phone 7 both had a jump on the iPhone in terms of voice control, Apple has zoomed past both of them with the purchase of Siri and its integration into the iPhone. The big deal for Siri is that it understands natural language and it is standardized across a lot of different applications on the iPhone. The user doesn't even have to be aware of which apps to use. You can simply give Siri a natural language command and she automatically interacts with the right app to execute it. That's a nice step forward for voice user interface (VUI).

The Siri experience hearkens back to the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984 when Steve Jobs climaxed his unveiling by saying, "I'd like to let Macintosh speak for itself" and it did (using Macintalk software), which blew the minds of techies at the time. Of course, in a larger sense, the whole thing also points back to the computer in Star Trek and its VUI. In other words, Apple has been entranced by the idea of integrating speech into everyday computing for a long time -- almost from the beginning of the company.

However, as fun as it is to bark orders at your phone and have it obey your commands in real time, the revolutionary piece of Siri is what it does in Internet search. It's early and Siri is still imperfect, but there are moments when Siri drastically streamlines the search process and gives us a peek at the future.

For example, I recently asked Siri for "the closest Mediterranean restaurant" (right) and got a list showing 11 restaurants, their user ratings, and their distance from my current location. Clicking any of the selections in the list immediately took me to a map.

Another time, I asked Siri, "How many calories are in a kiwi?" She came back with 46 calories along with a full chart of all the nutritional information for a kiwi.

Last week when I was doing research for my article iPhone and Surface: The moment Apple and Microsoft diverged, I got frustrated trying to find historical data on the market cap and revenue of Microsoft and Apple going back to 2007. In desperation (and half-jokingly) I asked Siri a question about Microsoft revenue in 2007 and surprisingly got an answer, based on data from Wolfram Alpha (which was also the source of the kiwi data). That eventually led me to Wolfram Alpha on the web (from my computer) to do a full lookup of the data, but the fact that Siri led me there was a big "ah ha" moment.

Siri can also help you find nearby physicians, lookup movie times, and pull up weather data when you ask questions like, "is it going to rain tomorrow?" Siri still has a hard time understanding normal speech at times and it's limited by its access to freely available data sources like Google, Wolfram Alpha, and Yelp. But, Apple has shown us what's possible with a much more approachable VUI than anything we've seen so far in the consumer market. Siri is almost like an IBM Watson for the masses.

One of the important things to notice about Siri is how it disintermediates search results pages in general and Google specifically. Instead of giving you a page of possibilities to choose from, Siri tries to give you a single authoritative answer to your question. Since Google makes all of its money by allowing advertisers to place their ads next to the items listed on the search results pages, it's easy to see why Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is talking about Siri as a competitive threat.

The next step

Now that Apple has opened the door to a natural language VUI and demonstrated new possibilities, the game really begins. Google and Microsoft will undoubtedly take cues from Siri and bring similar functionality to Android and Windows Phone, since both companies already have a lot of engineers working on voice technology. That means Apple is going to have to rapidly improve and innovate Siri if it wants to be a leader in VUI. Siri has two areas that need the most work: 1.) it needs to keep improving voice recognition, and 2.) it needs more data sources to feed Siri and integrate into its equation.

Currently, if Siri doesn't have an answer to something, the fallback is to throw the question to a standard mobile web search. That's not going to suffice for long -- especially when you consider the level of integration that Google and Microsoft will be able to do since they both own search engines. Siri needs a web search that is tightly integrated into the service in the same way that Wolfram Alpha and Yelp are today.

That leaves Apple with three options: build, buy, or partner.

Build

Siri itself is already a bit of a search engine, and with all of the searches that are now happening through Siri and running through Apple's servers, the company is amassing a treasure trove of data about the ways people are using voice search. Plus, all of the Siri data is tied to specific users and that will give Apple an excellent opportunity to do personalized search in the future.

Last year at the D8 conference when Steve Jobs was asked about Apple buying Siri and going into the search business he said, "They’re not a search company. They’re an AI company. We have no plans to go into the search business. We don’t care about it — other people do it well."

While Jobs has famously denied lots of things that Apple eventually went on to do, it's hard to see Apple building its own web search engine from scratch based around the core team it acquired from Siri. That would take years and lot of resources. Just look at how much money Microsoft has had to throw at building Bing, with only moderate success and no hope of turning a profit any time soon.

Buy

The faster on-ramp for Apple would be to buy one of the smaller players in web search, integrate it with the Siri team, and put most of its resources into customizing a VUI that feeds Siri. There are a few decent candidates that Apple could gobble up: Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Yippy, Dogpile, and even good old AskJeeves.

Apple has $80 billion in cash reserves so it has plenty of resources to buy any of these search engines. The best options would likely be DuckDuckGo and Blekko. Both of them already do some things better than Google, but don't get much attention because they're so small.

Partner

If Apple were to partner with another company in search it would have to be Google, Microsoft Bing, or Yahoo (which has mostly abandoned its own search for Bing). Google is an obvious "no" since it's Apple's archrival in mobile. Bing might look like it makes sense in the short term, since Microsoft has fashioned Bing as a "decision engine" rather than a search engine and that fits pretty well with what Siri is trying to accomplish.

But, Microsoft is destined to want to do something similar to Siri in Windows Phone and that will be enough to scare Apple away from a doing a deal with Microsoft.

Sanity check

With Siri, Apple has lowered the friction on search and turned it into a mellifluous experience. But, to take it to the next level, Apple is going to need much tighter integration with web search. Building a search engine would take too much time and there aren't many good options for Apple to partner with in search, so the most likely scenario is that Apple will buy a smaller player and integrate it into Siri.

Siri clearly has tremendous future potential for Apple across its entire product line. By the end of 2013, I expect that we'll see Siri on most iOS devices and Macintosh machines. Nick Bilton even believes Siri is the revolutionary interface that Steve Jobs wanted to bring to television sets.

The bigger and more entertaining question is if Apple does jump into search with both feet, will the company freely release Siri on the Web and challenge Google directly? I doubt it, given Apple's affinity for hardware/software integration, but it's fun to consider, especially as we look at Apple's new VUI as arguably the most important new development in search in the past decade.

Also read

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Browser, Hardware, Smartphones

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28 comments
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  • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

    I really hope they do - the "I really fancy a pizza" doesn't work in the UK and I'm gutted. I know they said it on the initial presentation but I must admit, I'd completely forgotten about that until I'd got one and was so looking forward to it.

    Ah well, fingers crossed it's in soon.
    Psyanide
    • Pack a lunch.....

      @Psyanide

      Unless Apple decides to buy Google or Bing, it has a long road to go to get even into the "city limits"
      rhonin
  • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

    Certainly a fascinating question - not just Google/M$ response to this 'threat', but where Apple go next.<br><br>I can see the logic of your argument that Apple might buy a search engine, but bar Google and Bing, none of the others is much better than starting from scratch; even AskJeeves gave up serious search several years ago, relying on buying places in Google's hidden sponsored links to pick up customers, then recouping the expense by offering its own sponsored listings. Hardly an appealing model for Apple, but light years ahead of all the others. And adapting / updating an existing 2nd tier engine would be as costly - and as time consuming - as doing it themselves.<br><br>And Steve Jobs attitude to search implies it's not something that has (so far) been a priority.<br><br>A short-term partnership, even with a rock or a hard place is a possibility, but I suspect the app revolution will allow them them to use siri as a portal to any selected search, thus saving a few billion <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/wink.gif" alt="wink"><br><br>Interesting times ahead.
    Heenan73
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @Heenan73
      actually it would make the most sense to develop an interface for Google search that delivers the results in a manner that Siri can easily use to return results to her users. It would be much cheaper and simpler to use a powerful search algorithm overlaid on top of Google search.
      aiellenon
  • Both Microsoft and Google officially said they do not need AI assistant

    However, both, as usual, lied -- it will take time but both companies will release their versions of Siri.
    dderss
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @dderss My WP7 was doing voice commands before your iPhone 4s was released. Apple just attached a gimic to voice commands by calling it a "her" and then marketing it as something that all the Apple egomanics want, a servant to boss around.
      clcrockett
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @ccrockett@... +1! Now repeat that many times and you'll know how much in agreement I am with you. Apple is successful because they have great marketing and use the "cuteness" factor to appeal to the large, unthinking group of people who have plenty of money to spend on cute little electronic toys. If WP7 had been advertised the way that every one of Apple's "magical" devices have been then far more people would be aware of WP7, especially all the features it has that nost competing phones don't. Windows 7 was heavily marketed and if you recall, Apple ran the last of its silly "I'm a pc" ads the month before Win 7 was released since they realized any honest ad would have to make Apple look like what they were: outdated. So now Apple uses cute little children to show how wonderful their products are and I, for one, don't allow my young children, or teenagers, decide what tech I buy.
        xplorer1959
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @ccrockett@...
        funny, my WP5 had voice commands
        funnier, my PC had voice to text in 1999, I think it had some commands, although not many at that time also...
        Dragon by Nuance (at least now it is called Nuance) has been doing this for almost 2 decades.
        aiellenon
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @dderss It's never that simple; both need the functionality, but hope to get there by different routes - neither was lying, but both were misleading - as was Jobs, when he denied interest in serps and pretended he thought G/M$ were doing a good job. Never trust ANY company when they discuss how to beat the opposition. They'll rarely lie, but they'll NEVER tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but ... they don't know how <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/wink.gif" alt="wink">
      Heenan73
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @dderss
      Actually where do you get your information. Microsoft has been talking about this for a while now with Bing and doing natural language search. They are working on it right now and will most likely be out with windows phone 8. I use the voice commands on Windows Phone and it works really well and I use it mostly for texting, but rarely would I use any other feature of Siri besides adding a calendar event, reminder, or alarm. Other than those Siri really doesn't offer all much over voice commands on Windows Phone. Here is a video of their plans for TellMe in the future: http://www.winrumors.com/the-future-of-windows-phone-voice-control-puts-it-on-par-with-siri-video/
      OhTheHumanity
      • Did you miss Microsoft ridiculing idea of Siri and saying it does not need

        @OhTheHumanity: ... AI assistant?
        dderss
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @dderss
        I don't recall them saying that, but you could be right? All I know is that they have been talking for a while now about doing natural language search with Bing, not necessarily TellMe, but I think it just makes sense that they would use this to do the same things as Siri? But hey I could be completely off the mark here, but from that video I think its clear what they are aiming for now.
        OhTheHumanity
  • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

    Oh yes, Suri is the game changer for Apple, just ask Howard Stern!!!
    clcrockett
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @ccrockett@...
      What did Howard Stern say?
      Loverock Davidson-
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @Loverock Davidson- http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/apples-siri-has-beta-moment-highlights-expectations-game/64296
        clcrockett
  • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

    They would be smart to partner up with Microsoft Bing if they really do need search capabilities. It provides more relevant results to the queries. Remember those Bing commercials with the information overload? Siri could produce results like that if they used anyone else.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

    Statements like this drive me crazy:

    "But, Microsoft is destined to want to do something similar to Siri in Windows Phone and that will be enough to scare Apple away from a doing a deal with Microsoft."

    Microsoft was doing this with the WP7 BEFORE Apple and it's implementation is rock solid. I can say "Call Bob Smith Work" and it will call Bob Smith at work. I can say "Text Bob Smith" "I am going to be late for the meeting" "Send", and it will send said text, in my experience it works 95% of the time.

    You would think that someone blogging on a news site would do a little research and maybe understand the products they write about. Alas, anyone with a keyboard can become an "expert" or professional "journalist" nowadays.
    clcrockett
    • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

      @ccrockett@... It's implementation is rock solid? It may be able to understand and perform mundane tasks like you stated, but 95% of the time is a stretch... a huge stretch. And it's rock solid implementation ends there, complicate it any further and the WP7 goes down in flames, it's actually ridiculous how non-functional it is.
      No, Apple isn't the first to this personal assistant party, but, like it usually is, it does it better, WAY better.
      UncleJello
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @UncleJello
        Actually Apple didn't do it either, Nuance did it. I disagree with your statement that the voice control is non-functional. I use it to do searches, send text messages and open apps. Sure it doesn't respond to "will you marry me", but last I checked no one wants to marry a device(well maybe some Apple faithful do!), but the one thing it does better is adding calendar events and reminders. And you may want to check my post above and see what Microsoft is working on doing with Bing and TellMe in the future. It will make you rethink that what Apple has now is something so great, especially if Microsoft delivers on this, it will make Siri look like a kids toy. And yes TellMe works for me over 90% of the time and is very accurate picking up my not so clear voice.
        OhTheHumanity
      • RE: Siri: Why Apple will build, buy, or partner on a search engine

        @UncleJello Mundane tasks? No it understands and executes USEFUL tasks. Driving and need to send a text, easy as pie and it does an amazing job and yes 95% is accurate from my experience. Outside at night "Start Flashlight", boom my flashlight app is opened. Those are useful tasks, and are done very well.

        I know it is hard for Applaholics to understand, but Apple didn't invent or even innovate voice technology, Apple bought the tech with the 30% to 40% returns they get on their overpriced products that YOU are buying. Apple didn't invent the tablet computer, they didn't invent the smart phone, they didn't invent the touch screen, they did not invent the GUI interface, they didn't invent any of this technology, they simply did an amazing job MARKETING this tech. It was Bill Gates and Microsoft that pumped cash into Apple in the mid-90s while Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy, perhaps you should be a little more grateful for the investment that Microsoft made into your favorite company.
        clcrockett