Feature Article

April 07, 2014

Wheelings & Dealings: Apple Acquires Another Automated Speech Recognition Company

When Apple first debuted its speech-enabled virtual assistant, Siri, in October 2011, the world was amazed and amused. Until that point, most people’s knowledge and experience of speech technology was limited to interactive voice response (IVR) systems, and their experiences weren’t always good. Since then, Apple has updated its iPhone and Siri as well, and the personal assistant has continued to onboard new refinements.

It’s easy to forget that Siri isn’t native speech recognition technology. The addition of Siri was thanks to a wise acquisition on Apple’s part: in 2010, the company Siri, Inc., maker of a little known iOS speech technology app available in the App Store. It spent the next year integrating the app into the iPhone.

Now Apple has made a new speech technology acquisition, though the news has taken a while to trickle out. Late last year, the company acquired (with little fanfare) an automatic speech recognition technology company called Novauris Technologies, which grew out of Dragon Systems R&D U.K. Ltd., the British research subsidiary of dictation pioneer Dragon Systems, according to TechCrunch. The employees and founders of Novauris – many of them speech technology veterans -- have reportedly joined Apple as of last fall, and the team is now working on improving Siri.

While Siri was released to generally favorable reviews, there have been some glitches in its operation, most notably in its poor integration with Apple maps. A class action lawsuit against Apple was dismissed last year: it was filed by iPhone users who believe they were hoodwinked about the capabilities of Siri, claiming they had been led to believe that the virtual assistant would function as depicted in Apple's Siri commercials.

At the time of the acquisition, Novauris had been developing its own large-vocabulary, automatic speech recognition (ASR) solution that was designed to access information stored locally on mobile devices or remotely on servers in data centers. They were licensing that technology to other companies. TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez notes that Novauris’ technology will be complementary to Apple.

“One of the biggest differentiators about Novauris in terms of the competitive landscape, is that they operated in both the embedded and server space, and they also owned the core engine,” she wrote. “This of course would make them a valuable asset for Apple, which had tried to acquire Nuance, the technology that powers Apple’s Siri – a partnership that has long been known, but only officially confirmed last year.”

For its part, Apple isn’t really keen on talking about the acquisition. The company replied to TechCrunch’s request for an interview with the familiar line, “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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