A Siri-es Of Fortunate Events

In my last column, I observed that Apple is Siri-ous about search. More than just a punny name -- and it is a punny name -- Siri represents a new search paradigm that relies less on keywords and more on instructions. And rather than just retrieve results, it retrieves recommended actions. We're not talking search engine here. We're talking virtual personal assistant.

To be sure, Siri is not yet ready for prime time, but it has all the makings of a Siri-al Google Killer. And, with continued investment from Apple, it's not unreasonable to think that Siri could do to search what the iPhone did to phones -- that is, completely change the way we think about them from both a consumer and marketing standpoint.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity recently to chat with Siri CEO Dag Kittlaus in preparation for my book, "Everything I Know about Marketing I Learned from Google." Mind you, this interview took place on March 19, over a month before the Apple news broke. If that deal was in the works at the time, Dag sure didn't tip his hand. But, given how Siri-ously Apple takes its secrecy, that's certainly to be expected.



Here's the full text of my chat with Dag. Note that when I asked him what was the biggest barrier to adoption for Siri, he said, "Time and money." Methinks he's got plenty now!

AG: Tell me about what you're doing with Siri.

Dag: 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.

AG: How did you get involved with this project?

Dag: 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 $200 million AI [artificial intelligence] 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 Adam Cheyer's developing technology vision and technology out of SRI [Stanford Research Institute].

AG: What does Siri mean for marketing?

Dag: 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, through APIs [application programming interfaces], 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.

AG: How do you maintain objectivity so Siri isn't just shilling for the highest-paying marketers?

Dag: 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.

AG: So people can unbundle the recommendations Siri makes in the decision chain?

Dag: 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 five gifts you might buy them.

AG: This really changes the paradigm of search.

Dag: 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.

AG: Why can't Google do this?

Dag: 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.

AG: Siri is only available as an iPhone app right now?

Dag: Yes, but Android and BlackBerry apps are coming very soon. We'll also have natural language interfaces so you can IM or email with Siri.

AG: How many users do you currently have?

Dag: Keep in mind we're only in one market, one phone, and launched six weeks ago. We have a couple hundred thousand users right now.

AG: What's your biggest barrier to adoption?

Dag: 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?

AG: 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.

Dag: 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.

4 comments about "A Siri-es Of Fortunate Events".
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  1. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc., May 19, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Yes, this definitely will change the game. The way for businesses to promote themselves with this is something we may actually start evangelizing here. Google AdWords for us rarely presents a viable marketing opportunity for our clients - in our opinion.

  2. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, May 20, 2010 at 9:37 a.m.

    HI see it being an interesting alternate to Google, but without some type of intense push to the masses, it will be like the others, nice, maybe better, but Google has socialized our actions. They need a "web" interface as well, or does Apple and Siri feel the browser is dead?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 20, 2010 at 11:33 a.m.

    Oooo goody. More opportunities to let a system think and decide for the individual.

  4. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, May 23, 2010 at 12:39 p.m.

    Siri changing "the paradigm of search"? Don't think so -- I think it's more you say tomato I say tamoto. Siri is "instructions" rather than "keywords" -- are what are instructions other than, in this case, spoken keywords? Siri retrieves "recommended actions", not "results"? Tomato, tomoto. "Why can't Google do this?" -- they pretty much already are doing it w/ Google Mobile Search. And it, too, is not changing the paradigm of search.

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