07/26/2012 10:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As Siri Faces Growing Criticism, Has Apple Advertised Its Assistant As Less Capable?

On Monday evening, Apple released a new television commercial featuring Martin Scorsese and Siri, its voice-activated assistant for the iPhone 4S. In the ad, Scorsese plays a frazzled parody of himself, sitting in the backseat of a taxi and barking orders at both his cabbie and his iPhone, with Siri calmly helping the hyperkinetic director maneuver an otherwise hectic day.

It's a familiar script, both for Scorsese (typecast once again as a frenetic control freak) and for Siri: Since the first iPhone 4S ads were released in October 2011, Siri is always either the hero or the hero-behind-the-hero, saving Christmas, launching a high school rocker's music career, helping Samuel L. Jackson achieve coitus on a dinner date and so on and so forth.

But while Siri's advertised heroics have never faltered over these nine months -- she even made John Malkovich giggle -- one writer has (intriguingly!) suggested that the feature's advertised capabilities have.

Has Siri been dumbed down? Matt Burns of TechCrunch (which is, like The Huffington Post, owned by AOL) thinks it has. In his brief recap of the Scorsese/Siri spot, Burns writes:

The latest Siri commercial just hit, and like recent ad spots, Apple turned to a celebrity to endorse the lackluster iOS feature. And, also like the other commercials, the dialog between Siri and the user seems a bit more simple, almost mundane, in comparisons[sic] to the early Siri commercials.

The first several Siri spots were filled with pie-in-the-sky optimism. They were very dreamy and nearly promised that Siri would change the world. But then people started using it and quickly discovered that Siri fell short of expectation.

Um ... Ouch.

Burns doesn't elaborate on why Siri seems more simple or mundane, so we thought we'd take a look. Has Apple really made its Assistant seem less capable or magical? Discounting the least impressive commercial -- in which John Malkovich just barfs out the word "LIFE" and then lounges in a chair for thirty seconds listening to Siri's canned response -- have recent Siri ads really dulled the sense of wonder and infinite possibility that defined the initial TV spots?

Though this sense that Siri has been "dumbed down" partly arises from our familiarity with her, these new celebrity Siri ads do take much of the fun and awe out of the initial spots, the ones that made you want to rush out and try Siri for yourself. There are certain consistencies: Siri is still acting on the same basic queries, spoken in natural language, that she was in early commercials -- reading text messages, checking the calendar, consulting the weather report. That hasn't changed. Apple still shows off Siri's range of functions, and its ability to understand everyday speech, in all of its ads -- a hallmark of Siri commercials since their inception.

From the first commercial to the Scorsese spot, however, three things have changed that numb the magic of Siri:


When you watch Siri's first ever advertisement, you see her ping-ponged across a dizzying array of situations and locations: in a fancy hotel suite, on a schoolbus with tiny ballerinas, inside, outside and on a run; used by a white-collar exec and a hipster, men and women, teens and kids:

The quick cuts and the jarring scene changes are almost overwhelming: Siri can do so much, for so many different people, in so many different places!

Now compare that with the Martin Scorsese ad:

This one takes place in a single location, with a single person asking the questions. That's consistent with the previous four Siri ads, which took place in Samuel L. Jackson's kitchen, Zooey Deschanel's house and John Malkovich's study (twice). The relative stillness of the camera and the setting do, in fact, reduce the sense that Siri is an everything-for-everyone software feature. Whereas before Siri was doing a dozen different things for a dozen different people, now she can do half as much for one person.


Another point that's tied closely with the first: Just like the characters we meet and the locations we visit, the number of commands that we hear in the more recent Siri ads has also decreased. Scorsese gets off six Siri queries in 30 seconds, which is exactly half as many as we heard in the same time period in the first commercial. And after we hear these queries, there's another important change: In newer ads, we actually get to see Siri's response to every single command given to her. In the first ads, we only heard the questions without knowing how Siri would answer. Siri's actual knowledge was hinted at before; now, we get the question and the answer. If Siri does appear dumbed down, then perhaps it's because the actual substance of Siri's answers just aren't as impressive as one might imagine.


Most importantly: Where are the children -- or failing that, the childlike wonder? One can see a definite shift in the way that the everyday folk from the early ads interacted with Siri to the way that the celebrities use it. The businessmen, the moms and especially the kids appear amazed and even have fun interacting with Siri; the celebrities sound jaded or bored with Siri in comparison. Zooey, Samuel L., Malkovich, Scorsese -- none of them seem at all impressed that they are talking to a freaking cell phone, and that the cell phone is talking back to them. Where is the awe, the fascination, the undercurrent of slack-jawed amazement?

* * * * *

If Apple is walking back its boasts of Siri's wizardly powers or near-omniscience, it certainly has good reason to: It has been hit by lawsuits on two different coasts, both of which claim that its Siri ads are "deceptive" and over-promise what the Assistant on the iPhone 4S is actually capable of. And, too, Siri has become something of a whipping boy for tech bloggers, web satirists and late-night comedians alike, who mock the service's slowness and its inconsistency at retrieving the correct information on the first try. These barbs have at least partially been invited by the breathlessness with which Siri was first presented to a fawning public, contra the messiness of the actual "beta" product.

In response, Apple execs spent a good chunk of the company's most recent event playing up how much smarter Siri would be after users installed the upcoming iOS 6 update. The iPhone 4S' star feature would gain improved voice comprehension, they promised, plus a database of sports statistics, the ability to make restaurant reservations and other enhancements. When this update rolls out, will the company return to the "pie-in-the-sky optimism" of its first Siri ads, or will we continue to see more ads that feature -- I don't know -- Chevy Chase scheduling a dentist appointment from his bathtub?

Siri may not currently be perfect, but she is certainly not dumb; she could, as many have noted, be Apple's future. Rather than retreating to cutesy "Celebrity <3 Siri" spots, Apple ought to start once again treating her like it.