Siri and the disruptive actions of parents

sirsby inkiboo

Clayton Christensen and Siri
[Via asymco]

At the Open Source Business Conference in March 2004 Clayton Christensen gave a presentation. It’s available as an audio file for download here: Clayton Christensen | Capturing the Upside. I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing because it’s the quintessential Disruption lecture.

It has relevance in many areas of analysis, but when I was trying to think of a way to characterize the potential for Siri I recalled one particular passage that I saw as almost clairvoyant. Seven and a half years ago, Clay said:

… the next time you go to a computer superstore, go to the voice recognition software shelf and pick up a box there that’s called the IBM ViaVoice.  Now don’t buy it, but just look at it!  They have a picture of the customer on the box, and it’s an administrative assistant who is sitting in front of her computer wearing a headset speaking rather than word processing.

You think about the value proposition that IBM has to be making to this woman.  She types 90 words a minute.  She is 99% accurate.  If she needs to capitalize something, she just instinctively presses shift and cruises through.  And IBM has to say, “No, don’t do that anymore.  I want you to put this headset on and teach yourself to speak in a slow and distinct and consistent manner in complete sentences.  If you must capitalize, you must pause, speak the command “capitalize,” pause, speak the word you want to capitalize, pause, speak the command “uncapitalize,” pause, please be patient, we are 70% accurate, this will get better we promise.”

This is not an attractive proposition to this customer.  And IBM has — I’ve not worked with them at all, but as I understand it — they’ve spent maybe $700 million trying to make voice recognition technology good enough that it can be used in that market.  This is a very difficult technical hurdle to surmount. Meanwhile, while they are investing that aggressively, Lego comes up with these robots that recognize “stop,” “go,” “left,” “right,” and the kids are thrilled with the four word vocabulary, and then “press — or — say — one” kinds of applications take root, and now directory assistants ask you to say the city and state and so on, and much simpler, and an interesting market is emerging.


Siri is not quite good enough to replace a true assistant but like the Lego robots, it enters in a simplified version that is very good at its task.

Voice recognition for a phone does not need to be at 90% accuracy since most people texting are closer to 70% accurate. So having an assistant that can accomplish things without the user having to clickthorugh all sorts of screens and then accurately type in something can be very useful.

And, it can get better. As chip speeds increase, it will do more. But there is an important aspect of how Apple succeeds here and it is well stated by this:

But it takes time. Like any truly useful breakthrough, it takes a long time to mature. And also like any disruption, the potential of Siri is rooted in four principles:

  1. Humble early goals which it accomplishes well
  2. A large population of enthusiastic adopters who give it sustenance
  3. Plenty of headroom in improvement giving it areas to grow into with positive feedback
  4. A patient sponsor who makes a stable living

There’s no magic to it. In fact it’s banal. These are only the principles that every parent uses to raise a child.