Cortana, on the other hand, found me a vast collection of information on how machine learning had changed and improved Siri.
Then I tried another task, which was to play some music. I asked each assistant to find and play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne” as well as Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace” and “Air on a G String” by J.S. Bach. Both Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri could handle the requests. Microsoft’s Cortana managed to find Suzanne and Bach, but looking for Hallelujah got a connection to I Heart Radio while the request for Amazing Grace simply failed.
The important point this test demonstrated is that the combination of Amazon and Microsoft is going to be tough for Apple to beat if the two companies deliver on the promise to enable Alexa and Cortana to provide the best capabilities of both. That integration already seems to be underway. This week I started getting my Amazon delivery notices from Cortana as well as from Alexa.
Apple’s challenge for Siri is to deliver a combination of the most important capabilities that Alexa and Cortana will be able to perform once they are able to communication with each other this fall.
This keeps in mind that Alexa can support third-party skills that are essentially audio apps that can extend its capabilities far beyond anything that Siri can do now. Without the extensibility and the powerful search provided by Amazon and Microsoft when these two assistants fully link up, Siri will become simply an amusement—a fun way to talk to your phone or tablet.
It’s pretty clear that Apple wants to be more than just an amusement, which is why Siri has been moved in to the same group that makes its highly successful iOS and MacOS software. But the question now becomes whether this can be done soon. Apple can’t simply wait until the next release of its operating software in 2018 or 2019, because by then the market battle may very well have been lost.
Worse, both Cortana and Alexa already exist in one form or another in Apple’s ecosystem. Cortana can already play music on your iPhone, for example and the Alexa app can play your music on your Echo. While you can’t use either app to buy things on Amazon (there’s another app for that) neither can Siri.
And that’s the core of the problem. Right now Siri simply can’t do what the other virtual assistants can do now which both Amazon and Microsoft are making a concerted effort to improve their assistants as fast as possible.
While Apple can probably help Siri catch up eventually, Apple has to speed up the pace of Siri development very soon. Federighi is probably Apple’s best chance at pulling that off, but it won't be easy.