The Information has published a lengthy report today covering the development of Siri. The article documents Siri’s tumultuous changes in leadership and management over the last few years, indicating that Siri 1.0’s infrastructure was very creaky, which held back the service.
One of the most interesting anecdotes is the claim that Apple’s HomePod team didn’t meet with the Siri group until 2015 (Amazon Echo first debuted in late 2014). The story says Apple had originally considered launching the speaker without Siri.
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The big takeaway from The Information’s reporting is that Siri launched with a poorly scalable infrastructure that caused bottlenecks for years after it launched in 2011.
At the initial release, the popularity of Siri ‘exceeded expectations’ and led to a lot of unreliability. The backend was not designed to handle enough users. Apple has spent the intervening years modernising the system apparently.
At one point, an employee reworked the code so significantly that a Siri component went from requiring 500 servers to just 5.
The delay in launching third-party app support for Siri was shelved whilst Jobs was still alive but even when it came back on the table, the code simply could not support it:
Mr. Williamson wrote that he tried to get the team to implement SiriKit and allow for outside developers to improve Siri’s functionality, but the team resisted because Siri’s “original software was so brittle and inflexible.”
Leadership of Siri appears to be very fraught with conflict, moving through many different managers since 2011. The Information cites disagreements between many key project leads resulted in the Siri division lacking focus and vision. There were also disputes between the natural language and search departments.
Apple bought Topsy in 2013. The Information says Topsy engineers were put off working on Siri due to the poorly made infrastructure ‘that had been patched up but never completely replaced’ since its launch.
In late 2015, Apple acquired VocalIQ, a UK company that focused on more advanced AI. The report says Apple has now successfully used VocalIQ’s technology stack for Siri’s calendaring requests. It seems like Apple will expand this tech into more domains in the future.
The arrival of the Amazon Echo in late 2014 shook up the Siri division as they had not been disclosed about the HomePod project until after the Echo was released, at least according to this article. Talent from Beats helped to improve speech recognition on HomePod with its microphone array.
Whilst it seems like Siri struggled for many years due to poor engineering decisions for the 1.0, it seems like the technical details are now finally being smoothed out. Hopefully, this will be reflected in user-facing advancements soon. In September, Apple SVP Craig Federighi took over leadership of the Siri division.
The Information includes the following statement from Apple. You can read the full report, including a more detailed breakdown of leadership changes, in The Information’s original report.
“We have made significant advances in Siri performance, scalability and reliability and have applied the latest machine learning techniques to create a more natural voice and more proactive features,” Apple wrote in its statement. “We continue to invest deeply in machine learning and artificial intelligence to continually improve the quality of answers Siri provides and the breadth of questions Siri can respond to.”