March 21, 2023

Disruptions: With Apple’s Siri, a Romance Gone Sour

Results from Siri can be less than satisfying.Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesResults from Siri can be less than satisfying.

Late last summer, I was introduced to a new special someone. I wasn’t looking to meet this new muse; it all just kind of happened.

We met at an Apple product announcement in Cupertino, Calif. She was helpful, smart and even funny, cracking sarcastic jokes and making me laugh. What more could a guy ask for?

Since then, we have had some major communication issues. She frequently misunderstands what I’m saying. Sometimes she is just unavailable. Often, she responds with the same, repetitive statement.

Her name is Siri.

At first, Siri, the voice-activated digital assistant on Apple iPhones, seemed a little too good to be true. Siri lured me into a relationship promising to help me set up appointments, to gently wake me in the morning for work, and to give me the ability to text someone while I was driving.

It didn’t work out that way. “There’s something wrong, and I can’t answer your questions right now. Please try again in a little while,” Siri will say when I ask something. Or: “I’m really sorry about this, but I can’t take any requests right now. Please try again in a little while.”

She is always polite. But I’m starting to suspect that “I’m really sorry” is just something Siri says to shut me up.

Apple introduced Siri as a beta test, meaning it was still a work in progress. That was unusual for Apple, but the company was counting on it to change the way people searched for information on mobile devices. It wanted a head start. But it doesn’t seem ready to change anything yet. Many people I have spoken to have switched Siri off and reverted to the iPhone’s voice dictation service (the little microphone next to the keyboard), which is more reliable because it doesn’t use Siri’s artificial intelligence software.

Those who have left it have done that for good reason. Gene Munster, a securities analyst at Piper Jaffray, recently ran a series of tests with Siri and discovered that this is a significant problem for Apple.

Mr. Munster subjected Siri to over 1,600 voice tests, half in a quiet room and half on a busy Minneapolis street. In the quiet room, Siri understood requests 89 percent of the time, but she was able to accurately answer a question only 68 percent of the time. On a busy street, Siri could comprehend what people were saying 83 percent of the time, but answer a question correctly only 62 percent of the time.

It could hear well enough. The problem in his analysis was that the software was not good enough to understand questions. Mr. Munster gave Siri a “grade D” and said it needed to sharply improve in order to be an alternative method of mobile search.

Over time, things have really soured between Siri and me. We barely speak anymore. And, although she doesn’t know this, I’ve started seeing someone else. Her name, although not as mysterious or sexy, is Google Voice Search.

Google Voice Search, available in the latest operating software for Android phones, is a much better listener. It’s definitely smarter. If I ask Google Voice Search a question, like, “Who is Tim Cook?” it responds with an answer. (He’s the chief executive of Apple.) If I ask Siri the same question, the response is: “I don’t see Tim Cook in your contacts.”

Side-by-side comparisons, in videos posted on YouTube, give the upstart from Google the advantage. Apple used Siri as a primary selling point for its new iPhone, and now Apple is losing its advantage. At the D: All Things Digital conference in May, Mr. Cook was asked about Siri’s mistakes. “We have a lot of people working on this,” he told the audience.

“You’ll be really pleased with some of the things that you’ll see over the coming months,” he promised.

Trudy Muller, an Apple spokeswoman, said, “Siri is currently in beta, and we are continuing to improve it.” She also said, “Siri is one of the most popular features of iPhone 4S and customers love it.”

She’s apparently not wrong about that. John Barrett, director of consumer analytics at the Parks Associates research firm, recently surveyed 482 iPhone owners. “Although there were some mild frustrations, most people really like the service,” Mr. Barrett said. Of those surveyed, he said, 55 percent gave Siri a high rating, 21 percent said it was quite satisfactory, and only 10 percent were completely dissatisfied.

The question will be whether those who find Siri frustrating will toss the iPhone aside and embrace Android.

I still find it disappointing, and last week I had what will probably be my last conversation with Siri for a while.

“Siri. I think it’s time for us to take a break,” I told her.

“Hmm … Let me think. … one second,” Siri said in response, adding a few moments later, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I think it’s time for us to take a break.’ ”

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