Published On: Mon, Mar 12th, 2012

Why Apple’s Siri Needs an API

Last week, Apple‘s announcement of a new iPad landed with the thud of a missed opportunity. The device boasted a sharper screen, a faster processor and a better camera—all nice improvements noticeably lacking in “wow.”

Even David Pogue, the influential New York Times personal tech columnist, was reduced to writing about new versions of Garage Band and iPhoto.

If only the company had listened to Woz.

Steve Wozniak,  Apple’s co-founder wrote in an email to Forbes that he had hoped that Apple would take steps to allow Siri, its ground-breaking intelligent personal assistant, to work better with other apps. In technical terms, Woz wanted an API, an application programming interface. And he’s not the only one. With his comment, Wozniak joined a growing chorus of geeks who have been lobbying for the chance to write apps that take advantage of Siri’s advancements in artificial intelligence.

Far from opening up Siri to experimentation, Apple has not even made the software, which it launched in October on the new iPhone 4s, available on the new iPad.

There’s a reason investors might want to enroll in API 101. Apple’s penchant for swaddling Siri in slow-moving bureaucracy has set back the development of the service and given competitors like Google a chance to catch up. By publishing an API, some believe Apple could get Siri back on track and kick off a new round of innovation.

Why do APIs matter so much?

During the last five years, APIs have begun to be recognized as one of a company’s most enduring assets. “A successful API can create a franchise that lasts 25 years or more,” Joshua Bloch, Google‘s chief Java architect, explained in an influential lecture.

That’s because APIs are the babblefish of technology—they let one service talk effortlessly to another and share its data under carefully defined parameters.

APIs are the reason Siri appears so smart, Facebook dominates the Web experience of hundreds of millions of people and Amazon presides over one of the world’s most influential cloud computing businesses. APIs are fueling the growth of a new generation of startups from Twilio (cloud communications) to Square (payments) and helping revitalize traditional companies like MasterCard and Bloomberg.

Dan Woods, a contributor who co-authored a new book, “APIs: A Strategy Guide,” with Daniel Jacobson and Greg Brail, points out some of the advantages to APIs: they can be a huge source of online traffic, they promote innovation and they inspire application development.

“A decade ago, businesses were still working to understand the importance of having a website,” explains Kin Lane, founder of API Evangelist. “Today businesses need to understand the importance of the API.”

Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Tom Gruber, who co-founded Siri in 2007, understood the importance of APIs better than anyone. Experts in artificial intelligence and mobile development, they realized the blossoming number of APIs offered by companies like Google, Facebook and Salesforce meant that 40 years of AI research had finally found a mass market application.

I spent several hours interviewing Kittlaus and Gruber in May 2009, less than a year before they sold the company to Apple, while I was preparing a story for the San Jose Mercury News. ”There is an ecosytem created by billions of dollars of investment in software that does things for you, but none of the applications connect to each other,” Kittlaus told me. “We are going to connect all this.”

Kittlaus emphasized that Siri was not just Google with a voice interface, and he walked me through a series of demos where Siri recommended a nearby restaurant and booked me a table, re-routed my travel plans to avoid an airport delay and bought a stock I had been waiting to hit a certain price.

“The key thing is we are not a like a search engine,” he said. “We want to make that transition to doing rather than just searching. Siri is a simpler way to navigate through the world now that there are all these APIs.”

At time, Siri was poised to launch on the iPhone via the App Store, and its engineers were busy working on a developer tool kit. “We are going to open this up next year at some point to let people develop their own applications on top of it,” Kittlaus said. “People will have ideas of what kind of intelligence to add to Siri, and we will let them go and build those types of applications, whether it’s a business or enthusiasts.”

Instead, Apple bought Siri  in April 2010. When Apple relaunched Sir a year and a half later, the assistant immediately became such a popular sensation that few noticed Siri’s cognitive abilities seemed to have declined. (With the exception, possibly, of comedian Steven Colbert.)

Instead of increasing connections to other Web services, Siri had reduced its connections. ”I used to ask Siri, ‘What are the five biggest lakes in California,’” Woz recalled in an interview with Dan Lyons.

“It would come back with the answer. Now it just misses. It gives me real estate listings. I used to ask, “What are the prime numbers greater than 87,’” and it would answer. Now, instead of getting prime numbers, I get listings for prime rib or prime real estate.”

Ed Wrenbeck, the lead iPhone developer of Siri, argued for a Siri API in a blog post last year. “There is enormous potential for Siri to integrate with data sources of many different types,” Wrenbeck wrote. “Opening Siri up while ensuring the quality of the data will be a challenge for Apple. However, the recent success with the iOS and Mac App Stores has given Apple an effective way to influence its third-party developers.”

For now, it’s the other way around. It’s third-party developers who are trying to influence Apple to share a Siri API, and so far they don’t seem to be having much success.

Originally published in

Author: Elise Ackerman

About the Author

- Nicola curates the best in API based news and commentary from around the web. If you would like to feature or advertise in API marketing, please email [email protected]

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