Image: CNET/Tyler Lizenby

Occasionally, seemingly small innovations pack tremendous impact. Certainly, that’s proven true with Apple’s Siri personal digital assistant. The voice-activated concierge so significantly reshapes the way people interact with devices that former Alphabet technical advisor, Eric Schmidt, has stated the feature poses a threat to Google’s underlying search business.

SEE: Robotic process automation: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)  

Regardless of rhetoric, Siri has its fans, with Apple revealing that the digital assistant fulfills more than 25 billion requests each month, according to Yael Garten, Apple’s director of Siri data science and engineering. Apple’s HomePod high-fidelity speaker extended the technology’s reach into its customers’ everyday interactions, and new watchOS advancements further expand the virtual assistant’s reach and usefulness.

Apple announced at its 2018 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that Siri would be updated to include predictive guidance and recommendations. Machine learning advancements, Siri’s voice recognition capability and the ability to learn from users’ behaviors and routines meld together to make it all possible. macOS, iOS and watchOS updates ushered in a new era in which Siri Shortcuts and improved watchOS integration made it even easier for users to create custom Siri reminders and receive predictive notifications and customized recommendations without having to expend much, if any, additional effort.

Whether you want to shorten the time required to answer a question, schedule a ride, check a flight’s status, take an alternative route home due to traffic congestion, send a note letting others know you’re running behind, send a text message or obtain navigation information without having to type, Siri offers intelligent assistance that adapts to the individual user’s nuances over time. Available in all of Apple’s operating systems—iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS—users can customize the digital concierge to possess different voices and change the way its services are activated.

Siri was originally introduced as a standalone iOS app by Siri Inc. Apple acquired the company in April 2010. The feature was then integrated within iOS dating to version 5, after which the feature was steadily rolled into Apple’s other platforms, including watchOS, tvOS and macOS. The platform now supports some 20 languages in dozens of countries.

We’ll update this cheat sheet when new information is available about Siri. This article is also available as a download, Cheat sheet: Apple’s Siri (free PDF).

Executive summary

  • What is Siri? Siri is a digital personal assistant that performs searches and completes actions in response to an end user’s natural voice commands and learns from a user’s behavior and routines to provide predictive recommendations and information.
  • Why is Siri revolutionary? Siri introduces an innovative and revolutionary search and instruction strategy, being adopted by competitors (including Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana), that changes the way users interact with devices and obtain information. By leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities, the virtual assistant’s usefulness is enhanced without requiring additional user interaction.
  • Who can use Siri? Users of any Apple device—whether the equipment is a smartphone, tablet, desktop computer, laptop, Apple TV, iPod touch, Apple Watch or HomePod audio speaker—can access Siri capabilities that help leverage investments the user has made in digital content and material across all Apple devices and services using an Apple ID.
  • What are the potential privacy and security risks of using Siri? Artificial intelligence, merged with machine learning trends and voice recognition capacities within a virtual assistant, raises multiple significant privacy and security concerns. The virtual assistant collects and leverages intimate knowledge and details of each user’s personal and professional lives. With such treasured information comes great safeguard responsibilities, but Apple claims to be up to the task. At WWDC 2021, Apple announced several privacy updates for Siri, including on-device speech recognition.
  • How do I use Siri? Siri is integrated within iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS. Users can customize settings for the virtual assistant, which is automatically integrated within contemporary Apple devices.

What is Siri?

Siri is a digital personal assistant, integrated within Apple device operating systems, that enables Apple device users to get answers to questions, check the weather, confirm flights, perform searches, answer questions, complete actions, send a message and much more. The time-saving feature uses natural language and doesn’t require learning sophisticated or unfamiliar commands. Also, Siri adapts to a user’s nuances, learns from previous operations and leverages a device’s existing capabilities to extend usefulness with a minimum of user instruction or interaction.

Siri is not a utility to be used in hectic, noisy environments, or a tool to be leveraged for performing complex commands, such as editing videos or photos. Instead, the digital concierge excels at performing time-saving commands (“Hey Siri, please text my spouse that I am running five minutes behind”), opening a specific file (“Hey Siri, please open the 2021 budget spreadsheet”), accessing specific photos (“Hey Siri, please open the new product shots photo album”), learning whether you need to take an umbrella to your client meeting (“Hey Siri, is it going to rain at 3:00 pm?”), and similar tasks.

Don’t sell Siri’s capabilities short, though—Apple touts Siri’s ability to book rides, make payments and display specific files, among other actions, too. The more time you spend with Siri, the more you’ll learn how it can be used to perform new and creative tasks.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Apple has continued investing in the AI assistant. Apple announced at WWDC 2017 that it was using deep learning to improve Siri’s operation. Voice intonation and inflection tweaks help create a more natural sounding voice, while the technology also benefits from on-device learning to enable it to better respond to questions, provide more relevant information and even recommend suggested articles, text changes and search strings based on the user’s previous behavior.

Siri news at WWDC 2018.
Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

At WWDC 2018, Apple announced new watchOS innovations that made Siri even easier to use. Users need only to raise their wrist and start speaking—they don’t have to say “Hey Siri,” to begin issuing commands and questions to the virtual assistant. The watchOS Siri Face supports interactions with third-party apps, too, and includes such enhancements as estimating commute times and providing contextual updates, such as for sporting events.

Siri’s sound consistently improves, too. iOS 13 and macOS Catalina introduced neural text to speech, also known as Neural TTS. Whereas Apple previously used short audio clips recorded by acting talent and pieced together to form words, phrases and sentences, with Neural TTS the resulting speech sounds more like normal human talking with natural emphasis and cadence. The effect is particularly noticeable when Siri speaks longer, more complex statements.

At WWDC 2020, Apple announced an improved design for Siri in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14. On both iPhones and iPads, Siri no longer takes over the entire screen when summoned; instead, a small, orb-like icon pops up at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to still see whatever you were working on before initiating Siri. Siri now also launches apps more seamlessly and provides information—like weather—with a banner at the top of the screen, similar to a notification.

SEE: IT leader’s guide to deep learning (TechRepublic Premium)

Some additional notable features to Siri include: the ability to send audio messages, dictate on your device and translate between languages with the new Translate app which allows translation of conversations and can work completely offline. Siri also has a bigger bank of responses to common questions and 20 times more facts available now than it did just three years ago.

SEE: WWDC 2020: Top new iOS 14 features designed with business professionals in mind (TechRepublic) 

At WWDC 2021, Apple announced iOS 15 and several updates for Siri like, Announce Notifications on AirPods. The feature allows users to share what’s on their screen just by asking. iOS also brings more privacy controls to help protect user information, according to a press release from Apple. Now, using on-device speech recognition, the audio of Siri requests is processed completely on iPhone by default, which helps improve performance significantly, said Apple.

Also announced at WWDC 2021, smart home device manufacturers can start working with Apple to integrate Siri into their accessories. “Hey Siri” can now be enabled in HomeKit accessory makers’ products, which allows customers to talk to and get responses from Siri on third-party devices. Accessories enabled with “Hey Siri” will “relay requests through HomePod or HomePod mini and will support features such as Personal Requests, Intercom, timers and alarms,” according to Apple.

Why is Siri revolutionary?

Instead of users having to stop what they’re doing, navigate to various menus and applications, access the keyboard, type specific instructions and browse and occasionally revise results, Siri enables users to deliver simple and natural voice commands to Apple devices. Whether seeking to play a video, open a file, obtain navigational information, view a specific photo album or perform other tasks, users can quickly perform all these actions using Siri via minimally disruptive voice commands.

Considering users configure Apple devices to join their iCloud and iTunes accounts, the content (spreadsheets, documents, presentations, PDFs, videos, photos, movies, TV shows, music and other files) available to all their Apple devices becomes accessible to Siri. The result is a much more collaborative, efficient and productive relationship between an end user, the end user’s digital content (files, photos, videos, music, applications, cloud services, etc.) and devices (Apple TV, iPhone, Mac, automobile entertainment system, watchOS and iPad) that require often minimal voice interaction to sort, locate, view and access.

Siri also simplifies the task of leveraging other Apple technologies. For example, an iPhone user on-the-go can instruct Siri to schedule a 2 p.m. client appointment on Tuesday. When the Apple user returns to the office, powers on his or her Mac and opens the Apple Calendar, the meeting will already be present on the calendar, assuming the user has configured Apple Calendar properly on all his/her devices. Apple quickly closed the gap from being able to enter such information on-the-go to being able to enter and synchronize such data using simple voice commands. The ramifications are impactful and wide-ranging.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (cover story PDF download (TechRepublic)

At WWDC 2017, Apple announced the release of a new Siri speaker. Called HomePod, the Bluetooth-enabled, self-adjusting high-fidelity device sports six microphones to extend Siri functionality. Apple users can leverage Siri voice interaction technologies (think voice commands), enabling the device to play Apple Music, control smart home accessories, answer general knowledge inquiries, set clocks and timers, obtain news and weather information and even get traffic reports and translations.

At its annual 2018 WWDC, Apple announced the introduction of Siri Shortcuts. The feature permits any app to receive access to Siri. Users can assign key phrases to specific apps, such as “Siri, I lost my keys,” to enable Siri to work with Tiles to provide the physical location of the missing keys in question. Using Shortcuts users can also create custom reminders and choose from hundreds of preformatted shortcut routines.

On April 20, 2021, Apple announced an all-new way to utilize Siri: a redesigned Siri remote for Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD. The remote features “an innovative clickpad control that offers five-way navigation for better accuracy, and is also touch-enabled for the fast directional swipes Apple TV users love,” according to the release.

When Apple released iOS 14.5 on April 26, 2021, it included several enhancements for Siri. For example, Siri no longer has a default voice; this allows users to “choose the voice that speaks to them when they first set up their device, and in English, users can now select more diverse voice options,” according to a press release from Apple. The new Siri voices use Neural Text to Speech technology which is intended to make speech sound as natural as possible.

Siri also has new capabilities with support for Group FaceTime, making it easier to initiate calls with multiple contacts or ask Siri to FaceTime the name of any group in Messages. Siri can now also announce incoming calls through AirPods or compatible Beats headphones, and supports calling emergency contacts if the iPhone user needs assistance and is unable to make a call.

Who can use Siri?

Users of Apple devices, including iPhones, iPads, Macs, Apple TVs and Apple Watches are affected by Siri innovations.

Customers who purchase automobiles equipped with Apple CarPlay also benefit; Siri functionality integrates with the car’s audio system’s capabilities and better links a user’s iPhone with the vehicle to simplify obtaining directions, making calls, listening to books, sending and receiving messages and listening to music. As announced at WWDC 2017 and WWDC 2018, Siri took an increasingly prominent role in watchOS 4 and watchOS 5 platforms, respectively.

Everyone from business users seeking to coordinate schedules and maintain pace with the modern workplace to retirees seeking to monitor investments to students working to ensure busy academic and personal lives stay on track will find the virtual assistant, which learns from their behaviors and routines, a welcome addition to their increasingly frenetic responsibilities. As Siri increasingly integrates within Apple users’ lives, with its machine learning and artificial intelligence capacities, the personal assistant could soon prove a necessity.

Developers are also impacted, as software manufacturers benefit when their applications are integrated with Siri. Apple’s SiriKit assists developers with the process. SiriKit consists of two frameworks that developers can leverage to tie their applications and services with Siri.

SEE: Checklist: Managing and troubleshooting iOS devices (TechRepublic) 

Apple’s WWDC 2019 conference touted Siri refinements both within iOS 13 and CarPlay. SiriKit makes it easier for developers to integrate Siri functionality within their apps. CarPlay is one example, as Pandora and Waze support Siri beginning with iOS 13.

Siri iOS 13 improvements include Shortcut support. A quick method for automating instructions, such as directions to the next appointment on your calendar, Shortcuts are integrated within iOS 13 to provide more powerful access to all Shortcuts, including those added to Siri.

Those using Siri for navigation will find the AI assist improving over time, as well. With iOS 13, instead of saying take a right in 700 feet, Siri will simply say take the next right. The improvements are more natural, and subsequently, more quickly understood. When traveling to large venues, such as arenas or airports, Siri guides you closer to your actual intended destination within that location.

But even everyday actions benefit from Siri. Whether using podcasts or Maps, Siri better guides users by providing more accurate and contextual suggestions and recommendations. Users can also leverage Siri to perform more common tasks, such as tuning in to a specific radio station.

With the release of iOS 14.5, Apple included enhancements for Maps users in the U.S. and China—they can now easily report an accident, hazard or speed check along their route by telling Siri on iPhone or CarPlay. While navigating, users can let Siri know about issues spotted on the road and report that incidents displayed on the map have been cleared. Other passengers can also report incidents as cleared by using Report An Issue in Maps. The hands-free feature is meant to help keep drivers focused on the road instead of being distracted by their phone screen.

What are the potential privacy and security risks of using Siri?

After Facebook’s massive data leaks, which revealed comprehensive profile and behavior information for identifiable individual users, privacy and security concerns are receiving heightened awareness. In fact, digital privacy and security issues are likely to prove among the most publicized stories of 2018 and the next several years.

At its WWDC 2018 conference, Apple renewed its commitment to privacy and security, but concerns remain. Whenever a technology captures as much intimate, personal, sensitive and strategic information as with which Siri is entrusted for each user, the value of that information proves significant, tremendously so for a variety of constituents. Thus, the challenge for Apple, which states it’s committed to safeguarding this sensitive data, is to avoid the type of questionable alliances and leaks that continue plaguing Facebook.

If macOS Mojave and iOS 12 are any indication, Apple’s moving in the right direction. macOS Mojave works to curb tracking, known as fingerprinting, which enables websites to track a user’s behavior across multiple websites. FaceTime will soon boast end-to-end encryption. A new Intelligent Tracking prevention feature built into Safari will protect against “like” and “share” links that often track users without the user’s knowledge.

SEE: Navigating data privacy (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

By making it more difficult for third-parties to track user behavior–by resisting the temptation to sell user data to advertisers or for data mining purposes and by presenting roadblocks to the release of complete profile information for a user–third-party app developers, websites, and other partners are going to find it much more difficult to mine Apple user’s information.

At WWDC 2019, Apple doubled-down on privacy. Having stated privacy is a fundamental human right, the company is increasingly positioning its technologies as possessing fundamental design strategies designed to preserve and protect user privacy, whereas such competitors as Google and Facebook are publicly collecting such user data to better target users with ads and promotions.

The release of iOS 14.5 offered users a new privacy feature as well: App Tracking Transparency. The feature requires that apps get the user’s permission before tracking data across apps or websites owned by other companies for advertising, or sharing their data with data brokers.

On June 7, 2021, Apple announced iOS 15 at its Worldwide Developer Conference. With the update comes several privacy updates to Siri, including on-device speech recognition. Now, the audio of Siri requests is processed completely on iPhone by default, which also helps to improve performance significantly, according to Apple.

What are the competitors to Siri?

Several alternatives, from such heavyweights as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, pose compelling competition to Siri:

Apple has a history of developing loyal relationships with its users. Many Apple professionals are so loyal to the platform that they use Macs in the office, iPads at home and iPhones everywhere in between. Mating Siri with the digital wearable (Apple Watch) and home speaker (HomePod) further increases the “stickiness” within the relationship that’s so prized by marketers.

SEE: Why I’m skipping the iPhone 12 and keeping my iPhone 11 (TechRepublic) 

How do I use Siri?

Users seeking to leverage Siri’s capabilities need to purchase a contemporary Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Apple Watch or Apple TV. Siri settings can be customized using an iPhone’s or iPad’s Settings menu, a Mac’s System Preferences screen or the Settings menu on an Apple TV.

The default method of accessing Siri on an iPhone or an iPad is to hold down the Home button. To summon Siri on a macOS Big Sur-equipped Mac, you can leverage a keyboard shortcut assigned within System Preferences or by clicking the Siri icon on the menu bar (after configuring your Mac’s Siri preferences to enable its appearance).

If your Mac or paired AirPods support it, you can then say “Hey Siri” to start using Siri. When this option is on and you select the “Allow Siri when locked” checkbox, you can also use Siri even if your Mac is locked or in sleep.

macOS Big Sur also places a Siri icon in the Dock for easy access. Using an Apple Watch, you can ask Siri a question by pressing and holding the Digital Crown or by raising the Watch or tapping the screen and saying “Hey Siri,” unless you’re using watchOS 5 or newer, in which case you can just raise your arm and ask Siri your question. In watchOS 5 and newer, users need only to raise their wrist and begin speaking—it’s that easy.

Editor’s note: This article was updated by Kristen Lotze to reflect news features and related resources.