The Information on What Went Wrong With Siri

Writing for The Information, Aaron Tilley and Kevin McLaughlin published a scathing look into the inner workings (and not-workings) of Siri’s development at Apple. Is it accurate? I don’t know. I have never had any sources directly familiar with Siri. But the actual results — the state of Siri today — sure do match up. The story is behind The Information’s paywall, alas. If you’re not a subscriber and want to read the full article — and I encourage you to, there’s a lot in it — you can do so with this shared link if you’re willing to give The Information your email address.

A few parts that caught my eye:

The Siri team still had Mr. Forstall, but his attention was divided by other major projects, including the upcoming launch of Apple Maps. Mr. Forstall installed Richard Williamson, one of his deputies on the Apple Maps project, to head up the Siri group and get things back on track.

Several former employees said Mr. Williamson made a number of decisions that the rest of the team disagreed with, including a plan to improve Siri’s capabilities only once a year. That was the approach Apple typically employed with iOS, and Williamson’s background was in making software run on phones that received updates from backend servers. Team members said they argued in vain that that model was wrong for Siri, which they believed needed to be an online service that continuously improved, not updated annually. While the server software received many updates relating to stability and performance, there were no architectural changes to Siri in the first year, say former employees.

Mr. Williamson, in an emailed response to an interview request, wrote that it’s “completely untrue” that he decided Siri shouldn’t be improved continuously. He said decisions concerning “technical leadership of the software and server infrastructure” were made by employees below his level, while he was responsible for getting the team on track.

Williamson can push back all he wants, but from the outside, I sure haven’t noticed steady incremental improvements to Siri — especially in the early years. Here’s where it gets really juicy though:

“After launch, Siri was a disaster,” Mr. Williamson wrote. “It was slow, when it worked at all. The software was riddled with serious bugs. Those problems lie entirely with the original Siri team, certainly not me.”

Dag Kittlaus, the CEO of Siri who negotiated its purchase by Apple with Steve Jobs, responded on Twitter and did not mince words:

@Jessicalessin This statement, wholly false, was made by the architect and head of the biggest launch disaster in Apple history, Apple Maps. In reality Siri worked great at launch but, like any new platform under unexpectedly massive load, required scaling adjustments and 24 hour workdays.

You just don’t see former Apple executives snipe at each other like this. I’m trying to think of the last time, and I’m coming up blank. And to be clear, it’s Williamson who broke the seal. Kittlaus wouldn’t have said a word if his team and their work hadn’t been besmirched. Steven Levy tweeted:

@Dagk @Jessicalessin That quote is kind of amazing. Even if true (and I believe Dag) brazenly pushing blame to someone else for a product you were responsible for is a very bad look.

The gist of The Information’s story is that Siri has existed for seven years without cohesive leadership or product vision, and the underlying technology is a mishmash of various systems that don’t work well together.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018