Apple Buys Voice Recognition Firm Siri, Hints At Future iPhone Mobile Computing Functionality

Apple today racked up its second acquisition for the month, a San Jose startup called Siri, which provides a voice-activated and controlled virtual personal assistant for the iPhone that performs a variety of functions both within the phone and by doing Web searches.

The news was discovered by blogger Robert Scoble, who noticed a Federal Trade Commission page listing acquisitions that received early termination under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (that page is here in PDF format). Early termination under HSR means the pending purchase has been given the green light by the FTC and Department of Justice, and there is no need to wait until the government's deadline to make a ruling.

Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) purchase gives it control of Siri's product, which the firm calls a Virtual Personal Assistant. The software allows the iPhone user to pose questions or to make requests from their iPhone. For instance, you might be out on the town one night and tell your iPhone, "Find me an Italian restaurant nearby," which it can do based on geolocation and Web searches. Over time, Siri gets to know you and, with your explicit permission, personalizes your results, the company has said.

Apple did not return calls requesting comment.

It's not yet clear how Apple aims to proceed with its new technology, which comes with quite a pedigree.

Siri is a spin-off from SRI Institute, the high-tech incubator in Menlo Park that has produced hundreds of inventions since its inception in the 1940s, ranging from the development of the computer mouse to creating the original Internet, called ARPANet. It's also been involved with numerous artificial intelligence and natural language implementations. Siri has raised $24 million in funding from Morgenthaler Ventures, Menlo Ventures and Horizons Ventures.

The Siri technology itself comes from a massive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project called CALO, which is short for "Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes." This was a $150 million project involving 25 research organizations and institutions, and also involved the work of Nuance, a major voice recognition firm that also spun out of SRI. Nuance technology is part of the Siri virtual personal assistant technology.

Gary Morgenthaler, an investor and board member at Siri, said he was "happy" to confirm the purchase by Apple but declined to discuss Apple's plans. But the CALO technology will not just belong to Apple, as it turns out.

"There are specific rights agreements for universities for their pieces of technology," Morgenthaler told InternetNews.com. "The core architecture that integrates those pieces resides with SRI International. Siri negotiated a specific use for a virtual personal assistant. This technology is still available from SRI. They are not just maintaining it but further developing that technology. My guess is there will be other companies or technologies spinning out of SRI from the original CALO development."

Despite the scant details on Apple's plans for the technology, early reaction among industry observers was positive.

"This makes a lot of sense for Apple," said Tim Bajarin, president of the consultancy Creative Strategies. "It suggests Apple will get more into integrating voice into their navigation, which, especially if you are driving, is a real boon. It's one of those strategic investments that makes a lot of sense."

While Siri falls into the "neat" category now, Bajarin foresees this technology being used in more practical areas where touch is not possible.

"While I think what they are doing with touch will usher in the era of touch computing ... the reality is it's not an ideal interface when you are actually moving," he said. "Or maybe it might be used an area where touch is difficult or people have gloved hands. Then voice becomes a key component."

"What Siri does now is a voice search. But that technology could be integrated into other elements of Apple's navigation over time," Bajarin said.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


navigation, iPhone, Apple, Siri, voice recognition