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Apple finally opens Siri to third party developers

TechCrunch TechCrunch 13/06/2016 Natasha Lomas

As widely expected, Apple is lavishing TLC on its voice assistant, Siri, at this year’s WWDC. The company has announced it will be letting developers bake Siri’s voice functionality into their apps — so users will be able to tap into third party services just by saying ‘Hey Siri…’.

While there are some Siri third party integrations already, such as Siri’s ability to perform look ups via Yelp, for example, or search for content on Twitter, the new capabilities greatly expand the potential for iOS users to call upon Siri, once developers start plugging their services directly into the voice interface.

On stage at WWDC today Apple gave the example of sending a “WeChat to say you’ll be five minutes late”.

“Now in iOS 10 we have an intense API,” noted Apple’s SVP Craig Federighi.

Other examples he listed where iOS 10 users might be able to call up app services via Siri included Slack, WhatsApp, ride-booking with Uber, Lyft and Didi. Photo search, via the likes of EyeEm. Pausing and starting workouts in apps like Runkeeper. Doing payments to friends, using apps like Number26 and Venmo. And VoIP calling via the likes of Skype and Viber.

“It works great in the car as well,” added Federighi, during an on stage demo.

Amazon’s rival Alexa voice assistant tech has long since opened up to outsiders, with the company announcing an API for developers a year ago and the first third party apps arriving last August. Since then the ecommerce behemoth has continued to build out dev tools for its speaker-housed voice assistant. Although Amazon’s need for developers to help drive interest in its hardware is rather greater than Apple’s, given the massive installed base of iOS devices. (Amazon does not break out sales figures for Alexa.)

That said, Apple launched Siri back in 2011 yet tight control over app integrations and core voice recognition technology which could often be hit-and-miss have clearly hampered its utility and therefore its usage. Meanwhile Amazon’s Alexa already lets users order an Uber. And only last month Siri creator Dag Kittlaus, who left Apple about a year and a half after it acquired his startup, was showing off his next-gen voice assistant tech, Viv, at TechCrunch Disrupt New York — with ambitions for the tech to become a control panel for all sorts of devices and apps in future.

Google also continues to combine user-data-mining plus AI to push the development and convenience of its own virtual assistant tech. While social platform giants like Facebook are piling effort into building their own AI-fueled assistants. Pressure for Apple to accelerate the evolution of Siri is clear. As former analyst turned A16z partner Benedict Evans put it in his email newsletter earlier this year commenting on the Uber Alexa integration: “The plain old neutral web isn’t coming back any time soon.”

One area Apple has focused on to differentiate its approach on the virtual assistant front is user privacy. At WWDC last year it showed off an update to Siri called Proactive that added some Google Now-esque predictive features — such as inferring who might be calling from a landline number that’s not stored in your contacts — except the data processing is done locally, on the device (not in the cloud).

It remains to be seen what sort of privacy safeguards Apple will be putting in place as is opens Siri up to third party developers.

Developing… 

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