Apple’s digital secretary named Siri was recently painted by Google chairman Eric Schmidt in a statement to the U.S. Senate antitrust subcommittee as a “competitive threat”. It’s been deconstructed as an effort to downplay Google’s dominance in search, where the company controls two-thirds of the market share. On the other hand, as always, something bigger could be at work.

Schmidt’s key remark from the statement:

History shows that popular technology is often supplanted by entirely new models. Even in the few weeks since the hearing, Apple has launched an entirely new approach to search technology with Siri, its voice-activated search and task-completion service built into the iPhone 4S.

Schmidt’s statement also refers to web reports, including a TechCrunch article by MG Siegler titled ‘Why So Siri-ous?’ and a Forbes story by Erica Jackson titled ‘Why Siri Is a Google Killer’. When reminded of his last September statement saying Bing, not Apple or Facebook, was the enemy, Schmidt said he was “clearly wrong”, adding they sometimes “fail to anticipate the competitive threat posed by new methods of accessing information”:

Apple’s Siri is a significant development — a voice-activated means of accessing answers through iPhones that demonstrates the innovations in search.

Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com, thinks Schmidt would say whatever was needed in order to avoid being labeled a search monopoly by Uncle Sam. Sullivan tweeted “Of course Schmidt said Siri is threat. Said same of Bing in the past. Will say same of anything that makes Google seem weak”. Forbes, along with many other outlets, shared a similar notion.

The thinking has its merits, provided one accepts to believe a Google chairman would dare lying in a Congressional hearing. Can Siri affect Google’s position in the marketplace, as Schmidt asserted? And will Google’s revenue from search-based advertising suffer as a result from Apple’s advanced technology?

A Nigam Arora study suggests Siri poses a risk for Google as the company might be getting fewer high-value mobile views from an unknown portion of iPhone customers. Siri users rarely get a chance to tap on adverts placed on the Google search results page. Instead, she pleases even the most aesthetically astute people by retrieving results from specialized sources on the web and present them attractively using custom graphics. The non-scientific survey provided evidence that Siri users are changing habits, the author explained:

Before Siri, I would have gone to Google and searched for an Indian restaurant. Google would have made money if I clicked on any one of a number of advertisements for restaurants on the search page. Siri completely bypassed Google and went to a data base called Yelp.

Just three weeks ago, at AllThingsD’s AsiaD conference, Google’s Android boss Andy Rubin questioned Siri’s usefulness. He sang quite a different tune to that of chairman Schmidt:

I don’t believe your phone should be an assistant. Your phone is a tool for communicating. You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone. You should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone. […] We’ll see how pervasive it gets.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone head Andy Lees couldn’t resist chiming in as well. He said Siri doesn’t compare to Windows Phone, because Windows Phone’s voice implementation relies on Bing, which harnesses “the full power of the internet, rather than a certain subset”.

Siri, an artificial intelligence-based personal assistant that launched October 14, lets iPhone 4S users accomplish tasks just by using their voice (and folks are finding new ways to expand her scope). She sources information from a variety of specialized sources, including restaurant guide Yelp, as well as search engines Google, Yahoo, Bing and Wolfram|Alpha. Even though Apple tested Siri on other iOS devices, the service is likely to remain exclusive to iPhone 4S for marketing and technical reasons.

Rarely does Apple launch a service with the beta tag, but that’s what they did with Siri. Rolling out Siri simultaneously to all iOS devices wouldn’t just kill the allure of iPhone 4S, it’d also place a huge burden on Apple’s servers that run Siri’s artificial intelligence. When Siri took an extended coffee break last Thursday, users cried foul over the outage. Now imagine the outrage were Siri to stop working on tens of millions of iOS devices worldwide. Plus, you need a good excuse to get an iPhone 4S.

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