Apple’s Siri has a huge language advantage

Apple's Siri reaches five times as many people as its competitors

We live on an international planet. Trade takes place across borders and between countries. We speak different languages, and international language support is one of Apple’s biggest Siri advantages.

Digital assistants

What use is a digital assistant that doesn’t understand you?

Apple is streets ahead when it comes to making a truly international assistant. Google Assistant and Alexa speak hardly any languages in comparison to the twenty Siri supports. Microsoft’s Cortana speaks just nine.

After all, traditionally one of the big criticisms of Siri has been that it doesn’t always comprehend spoken word commands in English – imagine how much harder effective speech recognition is if English is not your first language.

This inconvenient truth means that for all the hype, the only markets that can access the full potential of these technologies are English and German-speaking ones. There are a few smaller players in this sector, but M&A activity is so fevered right now many will be bought out by the larger firms and their future is uncertain until then.

Language barriers

Mobile World Congress 2017 is full of vendors introducing new devices equipped with digital assistants, but they are still confined to the languages supported by the main vendor, Google. Yet the diversity and internationalism of Android vendors means there’s a clear need to expand language support in the dominant OS.

I’m not holding my breath. Even when Apple introduced Siri in 2011 its assistant already spoke three languages (English, French, German). Six years on, and Apple’s main competitors have only managed to match two thirds of those.

I see that lack of commitment to supporting multiple languages as another great example of Google’s focus on its own market share above consumer need, though I do recognize that Google Allo already supports Hindi, Japanese, and Portuguese, which suggests more languages in future.

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In tangible terms, this means that while you can use an Amazon Echo to remind you to get things for your fridge, you need to speak English or German to do so.

In contrast, you can already use Siri on an Apple Watch to create a reminder in over twenty languages.

You can even use Chinese.

China is one of the best-informed markets on smart home technology, according to GFK, with 75 percent of consumers expecting these technologies to impact their lives. China is ripe for these technologies, and of the big firms only Apple’s Siri speaks to consumers there.

Market forces

We know Apple is working hard to put more intelligence inside Siri.

We know it is beginning to work with third party developers to implement support for apps.

We know it understands the need to further open Siri API’s.

We know it is investing deeply in machine intelligence that should be able to back its digital assistant up.

We recognise Siri already trounces competitors in language support, and we know that as the global economic model changes the emerging economies will become growth drivers even while incumbent leading economies continue their painful decline.

It's a big world

Let’s dig out some statistics to put that statement into perspective:

There are approximately 7.5 billion people alive, of these around 1.5 billion speak English, but just 375 million speak it as their first language.

Another 105 million speak German as a first language.

This means around 480 million people can properly use a digital assistant that isn’t from Apple – six years since Siri was introduced.

An imprecise estimate based on the languages Siri already supports shows Apple’s assistant reaches 2.45 billion people in their native tongue and around 4.9 billion when you include those who speak one of its supported languages as a second language.

What this means is simple:

Despite the constant (and often unwarranted) criticism of Siri as a voice assistant, these calculations suggest it is available and useful to five times as many people worldwide as its dominant competitors (in the primary language).

I'm no doubt this is will change, of course others in the space want to build their language skills. All the same, six years since Siri was introduced, this remains an Apple advantage.

For most people on the planet, Apple’s Siri can already say it speaks your language.

With an incalculably smarter Siri on the way, and better third-party integration, Siri will soon be able to speak your language more intelligently, too.  

No one else yet matches this claim.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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