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Siri got smarter at WWDC 2018, but not the way you'd think

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On Monday, the keynote kicked off Apple’s WorldWide Developer Conference with a focus on software and services. Nope, there was no new hardware, so no new support for Z-Wave or Zigbee radios like I had hoped for HomeKit. Apple’s Home app is coming to Mac OS X, however, so at least there’s that.

Apple did talk about Siri, and there are some improvements. I wouldn’t say Siri is any smarter though. None of the Siri news or announcements addressed the knowledge gap that Apple’s personal assistant has compared to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Siri will become more useful, however.

Probably the biggest Siri advancement is an IFTTT-like feature. It’s really for apps and information than the home and Apple calls it Shortcuts. Essentially, you can create your own voice shortcuts as an event trigger and then have your iOS device do things.

Siri Shortcuts

One example on stage was a “heading home” shortcut. If you say that magic phrase to Siri, she estimates the time to commute home, finds the quickest route in Apple Maps, sends a message to a family member saying when to expect you home, sets the thermostat to 70 degrees and tunes in to a radio station.

Siri heading home shortcut

There’s definitely value in Shortcuts, and the configuration steps appear similar to setting up HomeKit Automations. I do wonder how many iOS users will actually take advantage of the feature though.

I’ll give them a fair try, mainly because they’ll carry over to Siri on my Apple Watch. And speaking of the watch, there will be an option to turn off the “Hey Siri” preamble when you need that wearable assistant; you’ll be able to speak to Siri just by raising your arm. Another nice touch.

Part of me wonders though: Aren’t personal assistants supposed to learn our patterns and predict our needs to some extent? That’s what I find so compelling about Google Assistant, for example. Based on context of location, time, my calendar events and such, Assistant surfaces useful information or actions. From this perspective, Siri shortcuts seems like a step back because you have to train Siri what to do in various cases.

Siri will still learn your habits though. If you open the same exercise tracking app at roughly the same time and location — say at the gym at 5pm — Siri will eventually pop up a suggestion to open the app at the same time and place for you. This is similar to Google Assistant, which I love, but it’s just Siri starting to catch up since Google’s product  has done this for nearly five years now. In fact, I get my contextual alerts on the Apple Watch from the Google Assistant app today, although I’ll test Siri in this capacity once watchOS 5 arrives.

You’ll also be able to associate different third-party iOS apps with Siri once iOS 12 arrives. So Siri can do more, much like Alexa and Assistant work with Skills and Actions, respectively.

Apple demonstrated this by linking Siri linked to the Tile app which was used with a “lost my keys” shortcut. Saying that phrase caused Siri to open the Tile application and made a Tile Bluetooth tracker sound a noise. Again, this is helpful, and a clever way to extend Siri’s usefulness while also allowing iOS developers to reuse features they already offer consumers.

Siri with Tile app

If it seems like I neglected to Siri in relation to Apple’s HomePod, that’s because Apple never mentioned Siri in this context. In fact, I didn’t hear the word HomePad uttered during the keynote, so my guess is that Apple is still working on improvements for its smart speaker and HomeKit hub. I also suspect that Apple may not want to call attention to the HomePod due to sales possibly not meeting expectations and lukewarm product reviews.

All in all, Siri is getting better, at least on the phone and wrist. In the home and for search information, I feel a little let down. Perhaps at Apple’s fall event, we’ll see a slightly smarter Siri.

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