The Alternative Path To Market That Might Have Positioned Siri To Define The Future of Search

I often feel some twinge of heartache the startups with the most radiant potential hit their troughs of disillusionment and then cash out to a deep-pocketed buyer.

This is not the slightest bit because I begrudge the founders of these startups the personal wealth or professional success that comes with their exits.

Indeed, the wallets of everyone involved often get a lot juicier, and while that may or may not lead the founders to deeper happiness and well-being, the adventures of having lots of money in the world we call life surely has its share of exquisite moments.

But despite the “no need to worry, my accountant handles that” upgrades to the entrepreneur’s lifestyle, these cash-outs still feel a bit disappointing to the person in me that loves transmutational technology.

Partially because I am sometimes impatient for the transmutational technological concept to proliferate, and that often seems to take A LOT longer when a big organization gets its hands on it.

Partially because I like it when startups take on the establishment and make it through. Partially because I love a great story.

And partially because who knows why we feel what we feel and think what we think?

Regardless: when breakthrough technologies with transmutational potential find their ways into the portfolio of large organizations, they rarely achieve the heights that had been in front of them if they’d found a way to ride the inevitable waves of challenge, terror, and temptation to cash in that the technology entrepreneur’s version of the hero’s journey presents.

So it was with Siri, which started its life as an incredible technology demo and nearly un-useable user interface back in the utterly bygone era of the iPhone 3GS but could possibly have been the company that made the Star Trek computer a thing well ahead of its time.

The Obstacles to Greatness in Siri 1.0

At the time that Apple acquired Siri (less than six months after it launched), the Siri iPhone app wasn’t close to taking off, and it may have seemed to its founders and investors that this situation was not about to improve.

This is because when Siri was merely a standalone app, it made you jump through an unreasonable number of hoops to access its magic:

  1. Unlock your iPhone.
  2. Open the Siri app and wait for it to load.
  3. Tap a button to tell Siri you’re about to issue a voice command.
  4. Speak your command and wait for the results.

Like a small handful of observers, I was blown away by the tech that made Siri possible and the promise that it held, but even with my degree of excitement: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

It seemed obvious that for Siri to achieve its world-changing potential, it had to be integrated with the OS, and there was no way that was going to happen on the iPhone if Apple didn’t own its underlying tech, right?

Ah, but not so fast.

It is somewhat widely known, but never publicly acknowledged, that for a long time, before the technical expertise, datasets, and commercially-available tooling necessary to develop voice recognition systems of meaningful quality proliferated enough for Apple to roll their own, a voice recognition called Nuance originally powered iOS’s (and Mac’s) voice-recognition capabilities since Siri went live.

Unlike many of the things Apple builds into iOS, it does not own Nuance, which has an ~$9bn business (primarily) selling voice recognition appliances to enterprises that want to add voice recognition capabilities to the apps they build..

To own Nuance, Apple would have had to shell out a few billion dollars and inherit 10,000+ employees and a big enterprise business to boot.

For Nuance, Apple just became another customer, licensing its voice recognition tech and integrating its appliances into those data centers Apple was busy building at the time. It’s not obvious why a similar arrangement couldn’t have been made between Siri and Apple, had Siri been in a different position when Apple came calling.

Siri’s Road Not Traveled: The Path of Glory

Indeed, though it may not have looked like it the day Steve Jobs showed up to buy Siri with $300+ million in Apple’s cash, there were a number of paths that could have taken Siri along a much more impactful route—transforming it from an app to be opened on an iPhone into a platform to be integrated into every connected human-computer interface in the world that wanted to come along for the ride

The particular alternative trajectory for Siri I came up with for the purposes of this post goes like this:

2011:
  • Instead of selling to Apple when the iPhone app failed to take off, Siri’s team builds Siri for Android: a deep integration with the much more pliable Android OS.
  • With Android Siri, English speakers with Android phones can download and install it, and when they do, it embeds itself into the OS. All you have to do is put your phone up to your ear and speak your command.
  • Like the original Siri iPhone app, Android Siri will order you movie tickets, make restaurant reservations, and call you a cab, but now that it’s deeper in the OS, the experience of summoning it to action is frictionless.
2012
  • Siri has achieved a basic level of product/market fit, and with some clever marketing and strong word-of-mouth, it has enough traction to go after further investment.
  • Siri’s founders raise a big round to attack the search+transaction opportunity.
  • With singular focus, Siri builds out the team and aggressively integrates more services.
  • After not too long, you can ask it to order you a four-meat pizza and a Coke from Papa John’s. Want 1-800-FLOWERS to deliver a bouquet to mom on Mother’s Day? How about checking available flights for your next trip and booking the best one? Sure!
  • The early inklings of Siri’s transactional business model are starting to appear.
2013-2020
  • After 7 years of steady improvements and additions, the team launches Siri 7.0.
  • You can now give it access to your email and calendar and watch as it makes predictive recommendations, much like Google Now does today. But while Google Now only sends proactive notifications, Siri goes a step further: She offers to call you a Lyft.
  • Along with the launch of Siri’s predictive task-completion engine, Siri’s team has an even bigger announcement: the limited availability of the Siri APIs and SDKs.
  • With these APIs and SDKs, select partners (like Lyft, as it happens) can build Siri integrations themselves.
  • With Siri 7.0 and the Siri API, the world of internet search is about to get turned on its head.
2020:
  • After turning down an unbelievably massive acquisition offer from Google, Siri starts exploring a deal with Samsung to embed its capabilities into all of Samsung’s handsets by default.
  • Not wanting to get left in the cold and dust by its nemesis, Apple quietly agrees to license Siri’s tech and build it into iOS.
Beyond
  • Siri has weaved its way into connected devices of all kinds. People driving their Teslas are saying “Hey Siri,” and asking it to change the music, send an important email, and get directions to the nearest In-N-Out. People with the latest Apple TVs are asking it to put on the latest Game Of Thrones or switch channels to the Giants game.
  • At this point, Siri will process almost any kind of transaction you can do online and will answer almost any kind of searchable question you have. Need to find out which rental apartments came on the San Francisco market in the last day? Done. Want to add the song you’re hearing straight to your favorite Spotify play list? Just say so.
  • In this brave new Siri-powered world, it has become standard to have transactional conversations with your phone, PC, tablet, home stereo, and in-car dashboard. The way you used to get what you wanted from the internet — typing in a few keywords and navigating the subsequent links — is on its way to becoming anachronistic.

Dreams of Siri Die

Instead of pursuing this or any of the other potential paths to glory and independence, Siri’s founders and/or investors seem to have lost faith when version 1.0 didn’t get traction and decided to take Apple’s cash. Given the pressure and uncertainty and size of the offer, it was not a crazy call.

But making the call to cash out, the minds behind this incredible tech lost control of its destiny. If Steve Jobs hadn’t died when he did, maybe his vision and his furious desire to get revenge on Google might have led Siri along a path to ubiquity, but this was not to be.

Had they played their cards differently, there’s a meaningful chance that Siri’s creators would now be operating a multi-billion-dollar company and taking the lead on the future of search. Meanwhile, Siri would be shaking up the world, changing the way we interact with the internet, and taking the lead on the future of search.

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