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By Dan Moren

Siri Shortcuts: third-party integration by another name?

siri-shortcuts

More or less since Apple first introduced Siri, users have been clamoring for a way to use third-party apps with Apple’s voice assistant. Apple, though, has been slow to move in that direction: while the company has blessed certain apps with the ability to hook into Siri, they’ve largely left it as a first-party affair.

But, with the advent of Siri Shortcuts, iOS 12 changes that.

Shortcuts are essentially workflows. (And to anybody who used the iOS app Workflow, which Apple bought up last year, I mean that literally: the Shortcuts interface in many places looks like it’s been lifted directly from that app.)

But what Shortcuts empowers could in some cases be even more useful than letting third-party developers have access to a Siri API. Because Shortcuts puts Siri customization into the hands of users, with both positive and negative impacts.

The good

The power and flexibility of Shortcuts is definitely its biggest selling point. Users being able to define not only their own series of actions to be triggered but also how those actions are triggered is the rare concession from Apple that one size does not fit all.

The “how” is particularly important, because it means users don’t have to learn an arcane way to have Siri carry out an action in a third-party app. (Amazon, for example, first implemented a “Alexa, ask third-party-app to do this thing” syntax for its voice assistant, and is now trying to eliminate what’s proved to be a cumbersome construction.)

Much of the Shortcuts feature also brings to mind Automator, Apple’s attempt to deliver powerful automation features to all Mac users. But Automator never quite took off with the average user, since it was still somewhat complicated, and oftentimes devolved into the user needing to know more about scripting than most wanted to learn. Hopefully Shortcuts will prove easy enough that even non-technical iOS users will be able to reap the benefits.

To that end, I’ll call out another plus to Shortcuts: Siri’s proactive, predictive nature. Because Siri can figure out where you might benefit from automation, it can suggest creating shortcuts and expose the option to add actions to Siri from within apps (with developer support). That means that it’ll actually be able to surface this feature in such a way that people might use it.

The bad

But Siri Shortcuts isn’t without its downsides. Most significantly, from what we can tell, the interactions are shallow: these are, after all, shortcuts, not truly third-party app integration. So if you want to interact in any way that exceeds the purview of your predefined shortcut, you’re out of luck.

Along those lines, it’s unclear how much functionality third-party apps will offer (or be able to offer) for use in Shortcuts. You may want to, for example, use a Shortcut to post a tweet in Tweetbot, when only reading a tweet is supported.

To a larger point: you’re beholden to what third-party developers decide to implement in their app—and, moreover, what Apple lets them implement. (Of course, much the same could be said of any third-party with Siri too.)

Finally, Shortcuts still requires some degree of do-it-yourself in order to put into practice. You can’t just start speaking to Siri out of the box and have it know what you mean. We’re still at the dog-training stage here: Siri can understand when you issue a certain command like, “travel plans” or “heading home”, just as your dog knows how to sit and fetch. But it doesn’t really know the meaning behind those commands, nor will it pick them up without some sort of explicit action on your part.

The long and shortcut of it

Overall, I think there’s more upside than downside to Shortcuts. For many users who just want to be able to use Siri for more than they can today, Shortcuts might very well be enough to satisfy them.

Even for those of us who still hold out hope for deeper third-party app integration, Shortcuts is a move in the right direction, and may help with some of the frustration over Siri’s slow embrace of other apps. Or it may very well just stoke the fires and make us ever more eager for the real deal to finally appear.

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]