Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) unveiled some notable changes to its Siri voice assistant at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this week. The company is finally opening up Siri to third-party app developers so that you can tell Siri to send a message to a friend through WeChat and it'll be able to do just that (if Siri hears you correctly, of course).
Apple is also bringing Siri to the Mac. It's an obvious move that the company probably should have made a while ago, but it could certainly improve how Mac users find files and interact with their computers.
Both of these are wins for the company and they come at a time where Apple is looking to software innovations to drive further sales of its devices. But there are some conflicting views as to whether Apple went far enough with its upcoming Siri upgrades to keep pace with Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) new Google Assistant or to take on Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Alexa assistant.
For example, CNET writer Jessica Dolcourt wrote this after watching Apple's WWDC announcements:
"After Google unveiled upcoming changes to its search assistant last month, it shot far ahead of Siri. The enhancements that Apple announced at its own developer conference this week barely help close the gap on what it can do, and fail to address Siri's most glaring problem: its inability to reliably understand you and consistently give you all you need."
And it's true. Users have given Siri a free pass for about five years now, because the voice assistant hasn't been much more than a decent way to set alarms or send texts. But with the addition of Siri on the Mac, its current integration into Apple TV, and the new updates for iOS 10, it's clear Apple is getting more serious about Siri. And that means users will expect the assistant to listen and respond much better than it does now.
That point can't be stressed enough as device interfaces become much more focused on voice integration.
Wall Street Journal writer Geoffrey Fowler recently wrote, "Our voices are turning out to be crucial for interacting with tech in situations that don't lend themselves to a keyboard, mouse or touch screen -- and that includes many, if not most, gadgets we'll meet in the future."
But Apple has another Siri problem as well. Even with the coming updates and Mac integration, Google and Amazon's voice assistants are already gaining traction.
Amazon's Alexa is already integrated into 1,000+ apps and Apple may have a hard time catching up. Siri will be regulated to voice and video apps, messaging, payments, workout apps, and ride hailing apps, while Amazon makes Alexa much more accessible.
Google, of course, already has the most open mobile platform on the planet, and recently showed off its new Google Assistant. Google's advantage in the space is that it's already bringing its Assistant to its new at-home device, called Google Home (the company likes to keep it's naming system very simple, apparently). The Assistant offers a back-and-forth conversation that Siri can only dream of.
That doesn't bode well for Apple even after it's opened up Siri to developers. If Google Assistant proves more useful that Siri, then why shout out to your iPhone while at home, when you could get better results straight from Google's assistant?
It's not all bad for Siri
If Apple can successfully pull off Siri integration into third-party apps and improve the assistant's ability to understand commands better, then it may not have much to worry about. Apple doesn't even need to make its assistant better than Amazon or Google's, it just needs to make it significantly better than the version it has right now.
Computers and smartphones are continually moving to more voice commands, but it could be a slow progression. Apple's recent changes with Siri could be enough to help the company catch back up to its competitors, but we'll have to wait and see.
The litmus test will come as we see how well Siri is integrated into third-party apps, and if it actually helps drive iPhone and, to a lesser extent, Mac sales.
Apple is playing catch-up in the voice assistant world at time when assistants are becoming increasingly important, and at the same time its phone sales are slowing. That means that Siri is more important than ever -- and Apple can't afford too many missteps.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon.com, and Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.