The virtual assistants had more than a decade to become indispensable. But they were hampered by clunky design and miscalculations, leaving room for chatbots to rise.
Brian X. Chen, The Times’s lead consumer technology writer, and Nico Grant, who covers Google, reported from San Francisco. Karen Weise, who writes about Amazon, is based in Seattle.
On a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took the stage in a crowded auditorium to unveil the fifth-generation iPhone. The phone, which looked identical to the previous version, had a new feature that the audience was soon buzzing about: Siri, a virtual assistant.
Scott Forstall, then Apple’s head of software, pushed an iPhone button to summon Siri and prodded it with questions. At his request, Siri checked the time in Paris (“8:16 p.m.,” Siri replied), defined the word “mitosis” (“Cell division in which the nucleus divides into nuclei containing the same number of chromosomes,” it said) and pulled up a list of 14 highly rated Greek restaurants, five of them in Palo Alto, Calif.
That was 12 years ago. Since then, people have been far from blown away by Siri and competing assistants that are powered by artificial intelligence, like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. The technology has largely remained stagnant, and the talking assistants have become the butt of jokes, including in a 2018 “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring a smart speaker for seniors.