Webmasters for e-commerce businesses have long complained about the power Google has to pick winners and losers. They might just turn their ire on Apple if Siri displaces Google as the dominant way we search, buy, and do stuff on the internet.
With its algorithm’s power to decide which web sites make it into the first screen of search results and which were exiled below the top 10 results, Google established a powerful position between shoppers and e-tailers. The power of Google’s platform has not been that it forced you into the company’s ecosystem of products, though Google has certainly tried to do that; rather, its power and revenues grew out of its dominant position between you and everyone who wanted to sell you something.
Now along comes Siri, a totally new vocal interface baked into Apple’s iPhone 4S for interacting with apps and performing searches. Can it be long before Siri arrives on the iPad, iPod Touch, and the anticipated Apple TV? The technology of Siri is not new, but what matters is its relevance and usefulness in a post-PC ecosystem of devices.
As magical as the touch interface of the iPad may be, searching for something like a particular episode of a television program to watch remains a complicated and unsatisfying experience of flicking and tapping through program grids and searching by program titles with an uncomfortable touch keyboard.
Wouldn’t it be nicer just to plop down on the couch and tell Siri, “Play the episode of Star Trek in which the Enterprise goes back in time to Earth in the 1960s” and have Tomorrow is Yesterday start playing on your (Apple) TV? Or to tell Siri to find you a 1970s cop drama to watch, and have Siri respond with suggestions, including Adam 12, Kojak, and Baretta for you to pick from, based on what Siri (and Apple) knows you’ve already watched and liked.
Here is where Siri could potentially give Apple more power than even Google has when it comes to anointing winners and losers: As the interface, Siri sits between you and your apps and the vendors of all those television programs. As an intermediary assistant for ordinary searches, Siri could filter the results you get from Google according to its own algorithm. Siri could draw in results from several search engines at once and parse them independently. You won’t care which source Siri uses, as long as the results match what you really want. Traveling and want to find a place to get some sushi? Ask Siri, and even if the results Siri provides come from Google, you won’t see Google, and more importantly, you won’t see any Google Ads.
Siri has the capacity to be Apple’s filter between you and the world much the way Google has been, listening to your requests and serving you with actions and answers. Google surely recognizes the threat in a the shift to a vocal interface that makes its simple — and enormously profitable — text ads invisible.
iTunes allowed Apple to upend the music industry by placing Apple squarely between consumers and music companies. As our use of digital devices evolves to rely on a vocal human-computer interface, Siri is poised to put Apple in between the user and Google and everything. That’s a hugely powerful position to be in.
Of course, Google’s algorithm proved inherently susceptible to gaming, and Google and web site owners have been in an arms race of optimization that has made searching the web a fundamentally broken experience: Too often, the winning answers to many search queries are not the most useful or relevant results, but merely links to the pages that did the best job of SEO.
Will Siri turn out to be gamable as well? Will Apple put its thumb on the scale in deciding what you see? If Siri succeeds in becoming a dominating interface through which we interact with the internet’s vast web of commerce and content, what will Apple do with its power?
I sure as hell hope it’s not some mundane ad-based monetization scheme that has Siri responding to our questions with paid placements. I don’t possess a reflexive trust for Apple’s motives, but I doubt Apple would pursue such a scheme, since it would trash the experience of using its iPhones and other devices. Unlike Google, Apple makes its money by selling actual things, so it doesn’t have as much pressure as Google might to compromise the design of the experience.
Steve Jobs reportedly wanted to crush Android. Siri looks like the hammer Apple could use to crush Google.