Apple’s 2011 “Let’s talk iPhone” event at its Cupertino headquarters was a pivotal moment for the company. It was the first big showcase for new CEO Tim Cook as he tried to fill the shoes of the legendary but ailing Steve Jobs. Yet the event threatened to disappoint because the company’s new iPhone, the 4s, was simply an incremental update and not a flashy new iPhone 5.
Siri saved the day. Apple unveiled the digital assistant and showed off its ability to respond to voice commands that created reminders, scheduled calendar events or brought up information on restaurants or weather. Critics marveled at Siri’s potential and speculated that Apple might have developed another revolutionary product. Customers seemed to agree, and three days after the iPhone 4s launched, Apple had sold four million devices, at the time making it the fastest-selling iPhone ever.
Fast forward seven years, and Siri is a problem. It’s arguably the main reason that Apple’s latest product launch—a $349 smart speaker called HomePod—has underperformed, based on early estimates from analysts. Although the speaker won plaudits for its sleek look and audio quality, review after review trashed the Siri functionality with words like “dopey, ”“annoying” and “embarrassingly inadequate.”
To determine how Apple squandered its own head start over rivals Amazon and Google in the digital assistant realm, The Information interviewed a dozen former employees who worked on various teams responsible for creating Siri or integrating it into Apple’s ecosystem. Most of them agreed to speak only on the condition that they not be named, citing non-disclosure agreements they had signed or concerns about retaliation from Apple executives.
The experiences and opinions shared by the employees amount to a rare look inside Apple’s struggle to remake itself as a company that succeeds at creating innovative and effective online services, and not just hardware design. Apple has had previous blunders in its efforts to build up its online services business—most notably in its subpar iCloud service. The company’s enduring challenges with online services could hurt the company down the road as iPhone sales continue to slow.
Many of the former employees acknowledged for the first time that Apple rushed Siri into the iPhone 4s before the technology was fully baked, setting up an internal debate that has raged since Siri’s inception over whether to continue patching up a flawed build or to rip it up and start from scratch. And that debate was just one of many, as Siri’s various teams morphed into an unwieldy apparatus that engaged in petty turf battles and heated arguments over what an ideal version of Siri should be—a quick and accurate information fetcher or a conversant and intuitive assistant capable of complex tasks.
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