Apple’s Siri voice assistant role may be expanded to cover a larger variety of apps as the technology company seeks to fend off competition from Amazon’s Alexa service.
Currently, Apple’s Siri works with only six types of app: ride-hailing and sharing; messaging and calling; photo search; payments; fitness; and auto infotainment systems. At the company’s annual developer conference next week, it is expected to add to those categories.
Some industry-watchers have also predicted Apple will announce hardware similar to Amazon’s Echo device for the home, which has been a hot-seller recently. Apple declined comment.
But the Cupertino, California company is likely to stick to its tested method of focusing on a small amount of features and trying to perfect them, rather than casting as wide a net as possible, according to engineers and artificial intelligence industry insiders.
Even if Siri doubles its areas of expertise, it will be a far cry from the 12,000 or so tasks that Amazon.com’s Alexa can handle.
The difference illustrates a strategic divide between the two tech rivals. Apple is betting that customers will not use voice commands without an experience similar to speaking with a human, and so it is limiting what Siri can do in order to make sure it works well.
Amazon puts no such restrictions on Alexa, wagering that the voice assistant with the most “skills,” its term for apps on its Echo assistant devices, will gain a loyal following, even if it sometimes makes mistakes and takes more effort to use.
The clash of approaches is coming to a head as virtual assistants that respond to voice commands become a priority for the leading tech companies, which want to find new ways of engaging customers and make more money from shopping and online services.
Now, an iPhone user can say, “Hey Siri, I’d like a ride to the airport” or “Hey Siri, order me a car,” and Siri will open the Uber or Lyft ride service app and start booking a trip.
Apart from some basic home and music functions, Alexa needs more specific directions, using a limited set of commands such as “ask” or “tell.” For example, “Alexa, ask Uber for a ride,” will start the process of summoning a car, but “Alexa, order me an Uber” will not, because Alexa does not make the connection that it should open the Uber “skill.”
After some setup, Alexa can order a pizza from Domino’s, while Siri cannot get a pie because food delivery is not – so far – one of the categories of apps that Apple has opened up to Siri.
“In typical Apple fashion, they’ve allowed for only a few use cases, but they do them very well,” said Charles Jolley, chief executive of Ozlo, maker of an intelligent assistant app.
Amazon said in a statement: “Our goal is to make speaking with Alexa as natural and easy as possible, so we’re looking at ways to improve this over time.”
Neither Siri nor Alexa has a clear path to making money. Siri works as an additional tool for controlling traditional apps, and Apple pays money to owners of those apps. Alexa’s skills are free, and developers are not paid.
At the moment, because of their limits, voice apps are “a side dish, not the entree,” according to Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Earlier this week, Apple said it was preparing to launch a connected speaker to serve as a smart home assistant in a challenge to Amazon Echo and Google Home, a news report said Thursday.
Like Echo and Home devices gaining traction in the market, an Apple home assistant could let people control lights or appliances and interact with the internet using voice commands.
Amazon recently unveiled the latest member of its family of devices powered by its Alexa digital assistant — this one with a touchscreen.
Amazon has dominated the category of connected speakers since 2014 when it introduced its first Echo, which responds to voice commands and allows users to order goods or rides and control connected appliances.
A survey released last month by research firm eMarketer found Echo speakers held 70.6 percent of the US market, compared with 23.8 percent for Google Home and 5.6 percent for others including Lenovo, LG, Harmon Kardon and Mattel.
Samsung-owned Harman Kardon meanwhile recently announced the release of an Invoke speaker powered by Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana and integrating Skype for making calls using the device.
At its annual developers gathering in May, Google announced an array of new partnerships and capabilities for Home smart speakers.
Meanwhile, Apple has been under pressure to wow the world with a new creation as its culture-changing iPhone is about to turn 10 years old.