Apple's Siri Commercials: What Is the Company Trying to Say?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Apple has hired actors Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel to get people liking its Siri voice assistant again. The question is, why?

Actors Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel are the stars of two new Apple commercials giving Siri the hard sell. Jackson, readying himself for a date night, iPhone in hand, needs to locate some organic mushrooms for a risotto and a reminder to chill gazpacho. Deschanel, faced with a rain day, wants a delivery of tomato soup.

Jackson also needs someone to laugh at his jokes. "Unless you like hotspacho!" he tells Siri, in response to whether she should create a reminder to chill the soup. Siri refuses even a guffaw.

Deschanel, though shown staring out the window in the next scene, needs Siri to confirm for her that it's raining. And, despite looking around her house and determining that it's messy, asks Siri to remind her to clean.

Does anyone really need Siri? No matter. If celebrities use it, Apple seems to be suggesting, you should too.

"Turns out there is a lot of grumbling from users, and people I've talked to€”who thought [Siri] was a cool feature when it came out€”have stopped using it," Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies, told eWEEK. "All you need is a few fails and you drop it. Speech recognition, and the even more difficult task of meaning derivation, is not easy. And people are highly intolerant of imperfection in this domain. A speech recognizer that fails even 1 percent of the time is seen as flawed."

Tim Bajarin, a long-time analyst, called the introduction of the iPhone 4S history in the making, thanks to Siri. In 1984, he explained in an October 2011 Techpinions article, Jobs introduced the pairing of the mouse with the graphical user interface (GUI)€”neither of which he invented€”and changed data input forever. In 2007, introducing the iPhone, he did it again, with the touch-screen user interface€”a thing he also didn't invent.

"Now, with the introduction of Siri, integrated into iOS and a core part of the new iPhone OS, he and the Apple team have given to the world what we will look back on and realize is the next major user input technology€”Voice and Speech," wrote Bajarin.

While that may be true, it doesn't change the fact that lots of initially excited users have since cooled their relationship with Siri, whether because they can figure out by themselves that it's raining, or that their house needs to be tidied€”or because having an assistant doesn't come cheap.

"After the initial rush of people using [Siri] after the iPhone 4S was introduced, there seems to have been a significant falloff in usage," Pund-IT principal analyst Charles King told eWEEK. "But I believe that may be due to the impact of Siri on users' data plans, due to voice recognition processing being carried out at the data center, then pinged back to the phone."

It's one thing to pay a premium for doing something clearly data-intensive, such as using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) to watch a basketball game, said King.

"But taking an unquantifiable hit on your wireless bill to have Siri perform tasks you can easily do yourself seems like a waste of money to me," he added. "It's the virtual equivalent of hiring a personal assistant at a salary that changes month-to-month and whose charges aren't identifiable until after the fact."

Maybe part of the ads' failure is that Siri's not being put to honestly helpful use like she was in earlier, celebrity-free commercials, where for example she helped a jogger answer an email and a blind woman schedule an appointment. Jackson does ask Siri how many ounces are in a cup, which is a legitimate use of a service like Siri, though an embarrassing question to make an intelligent person ask. Why not have him translating the recipe from the metric system€”or another language?

Also, why the ad strategy change? Why the ads at all? Perhaps Apple wants to get consumers re-excited about Siri before Google launches Assistant, its answer to Siri. While Apple tends to show little fear regarding Android, if voice-based search really takes off, consumers' direct relationship with search engines will be damaged, mostly to the detriment of Google€”unless it's Google's voice-based Assistant that's being used.

Apple could also be trying to boost the Siri love before the introduction of its next iPhone€”so far dubbed the iPhone 5€”expected this summer, or Apple TV. There's even speculation that Siri could be paired with cars or gaming consoles€”like Microsoft uses voice recognition in its Xbox with Kinect. However, analyst Steve Wildstrom has written it's unlikely we'll see Siri anywhere but on an iPhone or iPad for some time.

The iPhone, Wildstrom wrote in an April 11 article in Techpinions, "makes a natural Siri development platform for Apple because even iPhone users are inured to mobile phones that fall well short of perfection. For example, calls drop, voice quality is often awful, messages arrive hours after they were sent. So we're prepared to put up with a personal assistant who doesn't always understand us."

However, Wildstrom added, "Apple, with its sharp focus on user experience, will be reluctant to push Siri into territory where customers may be disappointed by the performance."

Despite such a focus, Apple's biggest recent add-ons have resulted in negative PR due to perceived price gouging, says Pund-IT's King. "That doesn't mean Siri is going away anytime soon," he adds. "Frankly, it'd be a terrific value-add and product differentiator for Apple TV, but only if it's included in monthly service plans for a fixed fee."

Kay agrees. "Apple sees the need to reinvigorate and reintroduce Siri, lest it be seen as more of a gimmick than a real tool."