As I watched Andy Rubin’s interview at the WSJ D Asia conference I became highly intrigued by the comments he made about Apple’s Siri. Rubin told Walt Mossberg “ I don’t believe your phone should be an assistant…Your phone is a tool for communicating,” he said, “You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.” (
Here is a link to the interview if you haven’t seen it.
And then Microsoft’s Andy Lees, when questioned about Siri said it “isn’t super useful.” At the same time, he noted that Windows Phone 7 has a degree of voice interactivity in the way it connects to Bing, and thus harnesses “the full power of the internet, rather than a certain subset.”
What are these two guys smoking? They both seem to miss the fact that Apple has just introduced voice as a major user interface and that its use of voice coupled with AI on a consumer product like the iPhone is going to change the way consumers think about man-machine interfaces in the future. I wrote about its impact on future UI’s last week and believe that it is just the start of something big.
I have two theories about their response. One is based on jealously and one that is future driven, based on what Siri really will become very soon and its ultimate threat to their businesses. The first has to do with the fact that both companies have had major voice UI technology in the works in their labs for a long time. In the case of Microsoft I was first shown some of their voice research back in 1992. In Google’s case people in the know have told me that they have had a similar project in development for over 7 years. And in both cases they are way–way behind Apple–especially in Siri’s AI capabilities and speech comprehension technology.
Interestingly, for even Apple it has taken a long time to get their voice technology working correctly. In fact, in the early 1990’s, I spent some time with Kaifu Li when he was at Apple working on a speech and voice recognition technology called Plain Talk. At the time, he was considered one of the major minds on this subject and when, after a short stint at Silicon Graphics, he joined Microsoft, one of his key projects was working on speech technology for them. Of course, if you know about Kaifu Li, you know that he left Microsoft to go to Google and was the subject of a major lawsuit between Microsoft and Google because Microsoft thought he would disclose to Google too much of what Microsoft was doing when he joined Google.
Microsoft and Google, especially since they had the mind of Kaifu Li working on various projects while he was at these companies, cannot be too pleased that Apple was the one to actually harness voice and speech comprehension ahead of them since both have been working on similar technologies for quite some time. You can bet that if they were the one’s announcing a breakthrough voice technology they would be touting it as loud as possible. Instead they are downplaying it and to be honest, making real fools of themselves and their companies in the process.
But the real reason these two companies hate Siri is because of what it will become in the very near future. In case you haven’t noticed it yet, Siri’s voice technology is actually a front to some major databases, such as Yelp, Wolfram Alpha and Siri’s own very broad database. But what it is really doing is serving as the entry point for searching these databases. So, I can ask Siri to find me the closest pizza joint and it quickly links me to Yelp, then to Google maps. On the surface this might look good for Google and Yelp since it ties them to these third-party sites that get the advertising revenue from this search. But what if Apple owned their own restaurant recommendation service and mapping system? They could divert all of these ad revenues to themselves. Here is an obvious prediction then if that is the case. How long do you think it is before Apple buys Yelp or Open Table and MapQuest or a similar available mapping service?
How about searching for autos? Ask Siri where the closest BMW dealers are. It comes back and shows you the three or four BMW dealers within a 25 mile radius on a Google Map. But what if it could also tie you to Edmund’s database and instantly give you ratings of their cars, and dealers running specials? Or perhaps you are looking for an apartment in Hoboken? Ask Siri about available apartments in Hoboken and someday it could perhaps link you to Apartment Finder and while they might not need to own this database, Apartment finder would be Siri’s preferred first site to “search” for apartments and Apple would get a share in ad revenue from these searches.
Indeed, it is pretty clear to me that Apple has just scratched the surface of the role Siri will play for them in driving future revenue. At the moment, we are enamored with its ability to enhance the man-machine interface. But that is just the start. Siri is actually on track to become the first point of entrance to “search” engines of all types tied to major databases throughout the world. And it will become the gatekeeper to all types of searches and in the end control what search engine it goes to for its answers.
For this to work for Apple, they need to start acquiring or at least developing tighter revenue related partnerships with existing databases for all types of products and services. And then make Google or Bing the search engine of last resort for Siri to use if can’t find it in its own or its partner’s databases at Apple’s disposal. Oh yeah, and tie all of these searches to their own ad engine and drive as much of Siri’s “search” to one’s they have a revenue share deal with or own.
Yes, Siri is an important product for enhancing our user interface with the iPhone. But Siri is in its infancy. When it grows up, it will be the front end to all types of searches conducted on iPhones, iPads, Mac’s and even Apple TV. And, if I were Google or Microsoft, perhaps I too would be playing down the impact of Siri since they know full well that it is not just a threat to their product platforms, but to their core businesses of search as well. In fact, they should be quaking in their boots since Apple is taking aim at their cash cow search businesses with their technology and could very well impact their fortunes dramatically in the future.
For Apple’s investors, the call for them to start paying dividends on their cash hoard is too short-sighted. Instead, they should be encouraging Apple to start buying up as many databases and services they can and begin the process of entrenching Siri’s role as the first line of offense when searching for a product and service and get the search ad revenue from this for themselves. I believe that if they do this, they could probably add another $3-$5 billion in quarterly revenue to their already healthy business model within three years, as search becomes another profit center for Apple.
So, don’t think of Siri as just a voice UI. Rather, think of it as the gatekeeper to natural language searching of diverse databases and search engines that Apple will link to an ad model that I believe will eventually make Apple the third major search company in the world someday.