Siri Shortcuts is Apple’s Clever Plan to Dethrone Alexa

At this year’s WWDC, Apple decided to accelerate its place in the smart assistant skills race by getting users to make Siri better. Sort of.

Instead of announcing developer-created ‘skills’ along the lines of what Amazon’s Alexa offers, Apple is launching ‘Siri Shortcuts.’ The aim is to give users the ability to generate their own phrases for voice-first task management. So rather than “Hey Siri, ask Tile to locate my keys,” a more natural “Hey Siri, I lost my keys again” would trigger the Tile app into action.

Users have the ability to create their own commands, which means they could logically have different commands for different issues (in the above example, “work keys” and “house keys” might trigger different apps or services within an app). This is a clear expression of Workflow, the iOS automation service Apple purchased in 2017. Much like Siri Shortcuts, Workflow was a sort of visual coding tool that let users string together actions based on commands.

This means you can say something like “Hey Siri, time to go home” and it will know to cool your house, call a Lyft to the office, order your favorite meal to be delivered, and surface Apple News (which you like to read in the car rather than talk to your Lyft driver).

As a result of all this, developers have some tooling to consider. First, Apple says developers should ‘donate’ actions in apps. If a user can order a sandwich from an app, the ‘donate’ feature can surface a pop-up that lets the user know it’s possible to just make that action a voice command. From there, the Workflow-like – well, workflow – of Siri Shortcuts takes over. Donated Shortcuts can also be deleted.

Siri Shortcuts iOS 12 Dice

Developers can create their own Shortcuts to make it easier on users, too. If the same user saved the sandwich ordered as a ‘favorite,’ they could simply say, “Hey Siri, order my favorite sandwich,” based on the ‘favorite’ Shortcut defined by the developer.

Developers can even register their own vocabulary to Siri. If your app or service uses a bespoke vernacular, it’s possible to make Siri aware of it. If the customer’s favorite sandwich is named the ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ for some godawful reason, they can say, “Hey Siri, order me a ragin’ Cajun” (before questioning their life choices).

A “lightweight” method is to lean into NSUserActivity and populate an app’s info.plist section. It’s a feature many apps use for Spotlight and Handoff search, and Apple says a single line of code in this class – userActivity.isEligibleForPrediction = true – will provide basic functionality for Siri Shortcuts.

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