Co-Founder and CEO
Tell me about what you’re doing with Siri.
We’re putting reality to vision that’s been manifesting for a long time. If you look at HAL or KITT or the Apple Knowledge Navigator from 20 years ago, now the technology is here. It’s what we’ve done with Siri. Siri will literally become your (virtual) right hand. It’s just a matter of time and resources to make it broad enough to be useful to everyone, everyday.
How did you get involved with this project?
I’ve been commercializing innovation for 15 years. I’m the visionary not the programmer. My co-founder, Adam, was the chief architect on CALO, which was a $200mmm AI project.
I like to tease my engineers that I had a Commodore Vic 20 back in the day so I’ve been coding since before they were born. (What I don’t mention is that I haven’t programmed since:@.)
I started working on the product concept for Siri in late 2006 using developing Adam Cheyer’s technology vision and technology out of SRI (Stanford Research Institute).
What does Siri mean for marketing?
When machines can understand what people are asking of them and then take actions on their behalf — applying “personal context” information such as understanding who is asking? Where are they? What time of day is it? What do they like? Etc. — it largely bypasses the need to put an explicit advertisement in front of them. This may eventually lead to the death of traditional advertising as we know it today.
It’s not about promoting [your product] and [getting a] link. It’s [true] CPA [cost per acquisition]. Advertisers make available their inventory and data and, thru API’s, they can define what actions they’re willing to pay for. You’ll never get past CPC [cost per click] when it’s just links [and not actions].
[For example] with travel, Siri will know if you got screwed on a [flight] connection and will proactively find hotels nearby. These hotels will [otherwise] never know about you [or your need] in time to serve an ad. But, if they make their rooms available via API, they’ll get the conversion.
How do you maintain objectivity, such that Siri isn’t just shilling for the highest paying marketers?
Users will be able to customize which brands they trust and want and have Siri defer to those. Or, we’ll have links next to each choice [Siri offers] to the source of the information. Transparency will be the key to trust in this coming age.
So people can unbundle the recommendations Siri makes in the decision chain?
Yes. But after people start trusting Siri, [we suspect] they won’t check as often anymore. These personal assistants become your filters to the world.
Facebook tells you it’s your friend’s birthday so Siri checks their profile to see what they like and makes a recommendation for 5 gifts you might buy them.
This really changes the paradigm of search.
The most popular feature on search engines is the back button. Search doesn’t do a good job of getting you what you need based on your context. Siri [on the other hand,] will ultimately know you have kids, etc. and can customize.
Why can’t Google do this?
I wouldn’t put anything past them given time and focus but search engines aren’t built to understand conversations and what people are trying to do.
Search is an algorithm, a statistical model, that matches keywords against a master index. This is a fundamentally different business. Virtual Assistants are fundamentally about task orientation.
Siri is only available as an iPhone app right now?
Yes but Android and Blackberry app’s are coming very soon. We’ll also have natural language interfaces so you can IM or email with Siri.
How many users do you currently have?
Keep in mind we’re only in 1 market, 1 phone and launched 6 weeks ago. We have a couple hundred thousand users right now.
What’s your biggest barrier to adoption?
Time and money. And choosing the right things to do. Where do you start? How do you unveil?
Making it relevant to everyone’s lives [is critical]. We have to ask, “Is [whatever we create] an easier way for people to do things and is it the best way to showcase the product?” What’s the right sequence to capture imagination and value?
It seems like the imperative for marketers is to open up their assets for the Siris of the world rather than relying on the traditional distribution channels?
Yes, this is not just about a destination. This is a new distribution network.
Search gives you access to likely sources of information and then tells you, “Good luck. Next query please.” Siri holds your hand until you finish the task.
Update October 5, 2011: A few months after this interview, Siri was bought by Apple and stayed under the radar. Today, though, Siri re-emerged as part of the iPhone 4S launch. The Siri features page on Apple.com shows an application focused more on executing tasks via voice commands vs. executing complex search queries and assembling actionable results. It will be interesting to see how Siri is adopted by iPhone users and enhanced by Apple over time.