Siri's 'Intelligent' Default App Preferences


Apple has clarified that the iOS 14.5 beta is not actually allowing users to select a new default music service, as has been reported. Following the beta’s release back in February, a number of beta testers noticed that Siri would now ask which music service they would like to use when they asked Siri to play music. But Apple doesn’t consider this feature the equivalent to “setting a default” — an option it more recently began to allow for email and browser apps.

Instead, the feature is Siri intelligence-based, meaning it can improve and even change over time as Siri learns to better understand your listening habits.

When you swipe down on the iPhone’s home screen, you enter Spotlight. You type characters into the search field to quickly find an installed app on your phone. Before you type anything though, at the top of this view, there are four apps instantly visible: Siri Suggestions. Siri, or stripping the personified branding away, the operating system analyses your behaviour patterns to try and show you the app that you want, right upfront. I find it useful. A lot of the time, the app I intended to search for is actually just there, waiting for me. Swipe down, see the app icon, tap to launch, done.

Imagine instead that if upon opening Spotlight, Siri would launch the app it thought I wanted immediately. It would be infuriating. When it got it right, it would be cool but it won’t be able to get it right every time. These systems are always going to make mistakes, so you can’t go all in on a feature like that. Suggestions or recommendations are about as far as you can go without being frustrating. Even if it is was correct 49 times out of 50, that one time it is wrong will mean you will never use it again.

This latest music app situation falls directly in that latter camp. Through this TechCrunch article, Apple is very determined to say that the app picker UI is only a guide for Siri rather than a strict default app setting. If the actual behaviour of the feature reflects that, and Siri will sometimes change its mind about which app to use for a music request … that’s simply dumb. The central point of this feature is to make it so people don’t have to append ‘on Spotify’ / ‘on Pandora’ to the end of their voice requests. But if the unqualified form can’t be relied on to do that and work the same way every time, it’s pointless. The moment Siri decides to go off-piste and chooses an app you don’t expect it to, user confidence in the feature will crater and everyone will revert back to saying each command out in full.

Removing the need to specify the name of the third-party app is a good idea. Tying arbitrary and opaque machine learning decision-making to it is not. This feature should be implemented in the boring but reliable way: let the user pick a default app for each category of media from a list in Settings.