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Kimberly Beverett demos Siri Shortcuts at Apple’s WorldWide Developer Conference. (Apple Photo)

One of Alexa’s biggest competitive advantages is its catalog of more than 40,000 skills, leveraging third-party services to provide additional capabilities to users of Amazon’s voice assistant. One of Apple’s biggest advantages is its ecosystem of 2 million iOS apps, and the next version of Siri will tap into those apps in new ways that could rival Alexa’s capabilities.

A new feature called Siri Shortcuts, unveiled Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, will let iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and HomePod users access key features of third-party iOS apps via voice commands. Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering for Apple, gave an example using the bluetooth tracker app Tile. Federighi used the simple phrase “Hey Siri, I lost my keys” to activate the app within Siri’s interface.

This is a huge improvement over what Siri could do before. Apple first brought third party integration to Siri with iOS 10, but until yesterday’s announcements, only a few different types of apps were supported. With Siri Shortcuts, developers can add support for the capability to let their apps be controlled via Siri with customizable commands. Apps that support Siri Shortcuts will include a little button that says “add to Siri,” much as apps can currently add tickets or virtual cards to Apple Wallet.

Apple’s Craig Federighi introduces iOS 12. (Apple Photo)

Not only does this capability make Siri a stronger challenge to Alexa, it could bolster the HomePod and future Apple speakers as a smart home hub, after a lackluster debut. This could escalate the competition with Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo devices and the Google Assistant-powered Home speaker lineup, while creating another point of differentiation with Microsoft’s Cortana.

Also within Siri Shortcuts is the ability to combine a string of actions into a single command. On stage at WWDC yesterday, Apple’s Kimberly Beverett showed off a “heading home” scenario that included getting directions home, turning on NPR, setting the thermostat and sending out an “on the way home” text.

It’s easy to see how both users and developers could use Siri Shortcuts, and the drag-and-drop editor tool that powers it, to build out complex strings of smart home actions. Like third-party control, this is not a new innovation — it’s very reminiscent of IFTTT. But because of everything that Apple has behind it — the App Store, the native integration with iPhones and iPads — the company is clearly hoping the new approach will improve Siri’s chances against its fellow digital assistants when iOS 12 arrives this fall.

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