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Hey Siri, Where Are You?

Apple always skips CES. This year, it might actually regret it.

LAS VEGAS—It’s the year of the voice assistant at CES, and Amazon’s Alexa is everywhere: not just in TVs and speakers, but in personal robots, couches, showers, and mirrors. If anything, Google’s Assistant is even more ubiquitous, as the search and A.I.
giant goes all-out to build its own reach and name recognition. The phrase “Hey Google” is splashed in bright, bold color on billboards, a giant tent, and even the Las Vegas monorail. Microsoft executives are here quietly plugging Cortana and inking new partnerships, in the face of what might seem an uphill battle, and Samsung is still trying hard to make Bixby happen. The Chinese search giant Baidu is here, too, showing off some creative new devices powered by its own voice assistant, DuerOS.

But there’s one prominent A.I. assistant whose voice is silent at CES this year: Siri.

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Apple’s absence from the CES scrum is nothing new. The world’s top tech company traditionally skips the conference, a strategy that has served it well. Apple’s own storied launch events give it a far more potent stage than any booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center. For years, Apple’s nonattendance (along with that of the big internet and social media companies) has been a sort of sore spot at CES: There’s a nagging feeling that the biggest tech happenings are elsewhere.

This year feels different. With Google here in force and Amazon lurking behind every other smart gadget, CES has a bit less of a B-list vibe. At the same time that the emergence of smart speakers as a device category has rejuvenated the gadget sector, the proliferation of A.I. and voice-control software is making all kinds of other old tech—from cars to TVs to refrigerators—new again. Much of it will probably turn out to be a waste of time (does anyone even want a voice-controlled shower, let alone need one?), but the voice assistants themselves are here to stay.

Which brings us to Siri. As the first voice assistant to go mainstream in the United States, it had every chance to dominate the field. Instead, Apple has let it languish, relegating Siri to a supporting role on the iPhone. Meanwhile, Google put its Assistant at the heart of Android, and Amazon built an entirely new voice-based platform. Siri has been surpassed.

There are signs that Apple has begun to realize its mistake: AirPods, which put Siri in iPhone users’ ears, were a big step in the right direction. But its HomePod smart speaker has been beset by delays, and by the time it comes out, its $350 price tag will look anachronistic. (Amazon slashed the Echo Dot to $30 on Black Friday, and it became the best-selling product on the entire site.)

Apple’s success stems from the way it combines its own hardware and software in products that look pretty and work intuitively. Its brand loyalty is built on its careful control of the full user experience: Apple doesn’t build operating systems for other companies’ hardware, and it doesn’t run other companies’ operating systems on its own hardware. This has worked so well that it’s hard to blame Apple for taking the same approach with Siri.

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But there are reasons to believe voice A.I. may be different. Until now, different types of computing devices have required different operating systems, because they offer different controls and functionality. Natural language voice control, however, is designed to be universal: When devices can speak our language, we don’t have to learn theirs.
(It’s not there yet, as anyone who’s tried to use an Alexa “skill” knows, but that’s the ideal.)

This means that, in theory at least, Alexa or Google Assistant should work just as well on a smart couch or personal robot as it does on a smartphone. And so should Siri—but it doesn’t, because Apple is confining Siri to its own devices. You can still use Siri to control smart appliances via Apple’s HomeKit platform. But CES 2018 suggests that more and more appliance and gadget-makers are opting to make voice A.I. their primary method of control, and some are even building the A.I. right into their products. The upshot is that Apple is rapidly losing ground in the smart home.

Not only that, but Siri is missing a chance to become a platform in its own right. The iPhone has been Apple users’ mobile portal to the digital world, but the more they use Alexa and Google Assistant to control everything else, the less reliant they’ll become on their Apple devices.

One caveat is that it’s still relatively early in the game for voice A.I., as anyone in the field will tell you. Apple’s track record suggests HomePod stands a good chance of becoming a hit, even if it’s late to market and overpriced. Apple appears to be focusing on music and sound quality to differentiate its smart speaker from the rest, and perhaps that will be enough for now.

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No doubt Apple has the ability to build a fine speaker. The problem is that it’s no longer competing just with Amazon and Google: Both have partnered with some of the world’s leading speaker companies, from Sonos (Alexa) to Polk, Bang & Olufsen, and many more (Google). That’s likely to be an ongoing problem for Apple in the voice age. It may design the best smartphones, but voice A.I. can control a lot of different types of devices, and Apple can’t possibly build the best of all of those at once.

Coming to CES would be an awkward step for Apple; the event’s noise and clutter is at odds with its minimalist aesthetic, and the last thing Apple wants to be is just another vendor at a trade show. Fortunately, an official presence at the trade show isn’t what’s required. (Amazon, for example, doesn’t have its own booth; it’s just here in conjunction with various Alexa partners.) What’s required for Siri to catch up is that Apple free its voice assistant from the bonds of its own hardware and start striking up the kinds of partnerships that Google, Amazon, and the rest are so busy forging. Perhaps Apple will swallow its pride and do that next year. More likely, Apple’s pride will prove too large to swallow.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.

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