Siri acquired by Apple; iPhone <em>becomes</em> the Virtual Personal Assistant?

Siri acquired by Apple; iPhone <em>becomes</em> the Virtual Personal Assistant?

Summary: Apple buys Siri, and brings real semantic smarts to Cupertino.


According to an FTC filing unearthed by Robert Scoble earlier this week, Apple appeared to have acquired Siri. The rumour has since been confirmed, and I spoke with Siri board member Norman Winarsky to get some insight as to what this news might mean for the semantic technology startup I've been following since before it emerged from stealth back in 2008.

Siri reappeared on the scene back in February, launching their innovative (US-only) iPhone app after a protracted silence. In March, the company snatched Gummi Hafsteinsson from Google, strengthening their mobile credentials still further and appearing to maintain momentum. Semantic technology enthusiasts watched for Siri to get even smarter, mobile officianados waited with bated breath for the promised Android app, and those of us outside the United States waited for a version of the app that understood our accents, our geographies, and the APIs of the companies offering travel, events, entertainment, restaurants and the rest in our territories. Although Winarsky, VP for Ventures, Licensing and Strategic Programs at the company from which Siri was originally spun out, felt unable to comment on the specifics of the product road map moving forward, I can't help speculating that any Android (or Blackberry) app has probably moved a lot further down the priority list.

Even with billions burning a hole in his pocket, it's unlikely (although not impossible) that Steve Jobs spent more than $200 million just to interfere with the release of an Android app. So what did Apple want?

Firstly, they probably wanted to make sure that someone else didn't pounce and grab the opportunity. Secondly, Siri is smart, innovative and impressive. The application does a great job of appearing simple and intuitive, whilst fulfilling a useful - and potentially complex - role. Given the surprisingly limited voice capabilities of Apple's current mobile devices, they may well be interested in harnessing some of that language interpretation capability for future mobile devices and even their desktop line. I doubt that required Siri, though, so much as the far cheaper poaching of some key staff from Siri or their partner (and fellow SRI spin-out), Nuance.

In its current form, Siri remains relatively limited in scope (finding and booking things on the move, essentially) and geography (the United States), and if Apple is serious about making something of the company they've acquired (rather than just securing its staff and IP) it will need to move forward aggressively on both fronts. Do they want a travel assistant with global reach, or do they want to give every iPhone/iPad/Mac owner their very own virtual secretary?

Winarsky is quick to suggest that the notion of the 'virtual personal assistant' applies in contexts far beyond the mobile niche carved out by Siri. Citing a 'perfect storm' created by the conjunction of bandwidth, compelling user interfaces and on-demand network compute power, he argues that Siri's current incarnation merely represents a taste of what's still to come. SRI continues to build upon the CALO project from which Siri was born, and opportunities are becoming increasingly clear in verticals as diverse as healthcare, retail, and call centre operations. SRI conducts 'more than 2,000 projects per year,' and the next CALO spin-off could emerge from their labs 'in less than six months.' Surely Apple didn't buy the wrong CALO baby?

Far from embarking upon a mission to solve the Turing Test, which Winarsky argues cannot be done, SRI researchers (and the Siri team) are amongst those transforming the tarnished image of Artificial Intelligence. By working within a defined vertical (healthcare, etc), it is entirely feasible to train an agent in such a way that it can reliably infer and act intelligently with respect to context. When you're only dealing with medical complaints (say), it's not impossible to train a machine to excel with idiom, jargon, and even ambiguity. It's also feasible to expect that the machine could learn - and adapt - 'in the wild,' without recourse to the lab every time external factors shift substantially.

As well as pointing to SRI's long heritage, successful track record, and future plans, Winarsky was keen to stress the important role played by Siri's venture capital backers in reaching the current settlement with Apple. Both Menlo Ventures' Shawn Carolan and Morgenthaler's Gary Morgenthaler apparently 'did the heavy lifting' on the deal. Winarsky points out that the hardest part of getting a company like Siri to this stage isn't actually developing the technology, but recognising the real market opportunity and 'navigating amongst the giants' in the space. In all of this, he reiterated, good VCs proved invaluable. And they weren't even listening in on the call!

I never thought I'd see 'metadata' discussed in the UK Parliament, then I did when we adopted Government Metadata Standards a few years back. I never thought I'd see 'RDF' pass the lips of a head of state, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it this year. Will Steve Jobs stand up at WWDC'10 and talk about Apple's embracing of/invention of 'the Semantic Web?' We shall see!

Good luck to all at Siri, and I look forward to seeing what Apple does next... and what SRI spawns next.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones

Paul Miller

About Paul Miller

Paul Miller provides consultancy and analysis services at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web.

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  • Apple is destined for extinction

    Just used the Incredible, do like the N1 more cause its got the Google experience, but the Incredible is AWESOME.

    3GS and 4GS are only playing catch up, by the time 4GS and HD come along, Android is going to be so far ahead of the game. Its a no contest situation.

    Then, regarding the Market. Apple crossed (148Appsbiz info)
    Feb-09 --> 25K
    Jun-09 --> 50K (4Months later)
    Nov-09 --> 100K (5 Months later)
    May-10 --> 200K(6 Months later).
    Dec-10 --> 400K (7 Months later)

    In contrast Android (androlib info):
    Jan-10 --> 25K
    Apr-10 --> 50k (3 months)
    Jul-10 --> 100k (3 months)
    Oct-10 --> 200k (3 months)

    Apples development time is increasing. It took 6 months to duplicate the amount of apps it had available.

    Android development time is duplicating every 3 months average.

    By Feb-11 Android will have over 1 million apps and Apple will have only half as many.

    IF the current trends continue, this is the future. That is a big if!

    Regardless the amount of downloads and apps Apple has, its destined to become insignificant this year.

    Its relevance and technology development cycle seem to be headed the same way. Unless Apple comes out with something HUGE!

    Along with the advent of Android, streaming video and tethering have become a common thing. Like me last year, I see many people dropping their DSL service along with their cable service. It all comes through the cellphone now.

    These trends show that Apple along with TimeWarner, AOL, and all major Cable companies are destined to extinction.
    • Your post makes no rational sense.

      In terms of market share, yes Android has gained market share, but look at where that share is being siphoned from. Apple's market share stayed flat at 25%, Rim gained 1.3%, meanwhile MSFT and Palm lost market share.

      And the # of apps really doesn't matter. Sure one can say there is a huge selection, but at the same time if half that selection is just crap to gain a quick buck of some dolt who doesn't know better, then what's the point.

      What it really comes down to is customer satisfaction. The happier a customer is in using a product will lead to them being a returning customer. Android is a good OS, and a nice platform, but at the same point if it becomes saturated with bad apps, and poor support due to fragmentation, which is a real risk with Android, it could leave a bad taste in consumers mouths.
  • Here, take a look

    Maybe it does now?
  • Uralbas, let me give you some advice

    First, learn how to interpret facts and figures. Apple
    invented the concept of a mobile App Store, so, since they
    were the first, it's taken three years to reach 200,000 apps.

    Apple is the third most valued company in terms of market
    cap on the S&P 500. What are you smokin' that makes you
    think they're history? Are you nuts?

    Apple owns the mp3 market, soon to own the smartphone
    market and the tablet market. Apple's not going anywhere,
    except taking a few more crowns from Microsoft over the
    next few years.

    A month ago, when Apple stock was at 193, I suggested
    the fine readers here at Zdnet buy some stock. Its now at
    261. Take my advice and buy now; it'll be 350 this time
    next year.

    You're welcome.
    • Apple App store opened in July 2008

      It's been less than 2 years.

      8.8 million iPhone's sold last quarter, best ever.

      You can fill an iPhone with Apps, currently around 30GB, iPod Touch
      around 60GB, you can't do that with an android phone.

      Will Android tablets have the same memory limitation?
    • Remember Enron?

      Lol, lets just wait and see... My prediction stands..

      Android hits 100K apps by Jul... late case Sep 2010

      If Android and Apple current trends continue, Android will hit 500K apps by Nov 2010 Apple shall have about 400K apps then. And Feb 2011 Android shall have reached 1 million apps while Apple will have reached 500K or there about.

      In terms of devices. Apple released the 3GS cause the G1 had many of the options the 3G lacked: copy / paste, mms, and bluetooth, global search being the main ones. Other unknown ones was the ability to connect a 500GB drive to the G1, Apple doesn't have that yet.

      Apple this year is releasing the 4GS with multitasking and large storage capacity being the main reasons for the upgrade. Its playing catch up again and has to contend with the N1, the Incredible, Evo 4G that are today's technology. 3 months down the line when the 4GS comes out, do you care to wonder what Android may have to offer?

      The fact that Android has standard Flash within its OS (as of Android 2.2) will be a major issue for Apple and it may be forced to eat its words and release Flash on the 4GS or the HD. I'm sure Apple will do its best to push HTML5 standards trying to kill Flash before it reconsiders. But it did so before.. remember why Apple stated multitasking was bad for you?

      If you've ever been in industry and worked with technology, you understand that large companies have a hard time and take time to make changes on products that work and are profitable.

      They generally react behind the curve of leading technology (take a look at Apple with multitasking, how it stated it many times that if they had it, it would kill your battery), though now forced with current technological trends, it will offer it in its product line.

      When and if you get a chance to stop by Verizon and use an Incredible you will only be able to state that Apple's advantage is the iTunes market, as apps and other consideration are not relevant. The fact that technology at iLike or used to be Lala (killed by Apple) provides you with a cheap way to stream what ever you want when you want, makes iTunes irrelevant.

      Apples use of the back of the phone as a Touch pad (like its mouses) is an interesting concept, but hardly a game changer. The fact that it will have a LONG battery life will be a nice touch and many will have to follow Apples lead. Still not a game changer.

      Companies are not too big to fail. The trends clearly show that Android with 9% of the smartphone market compares equally to Apples 25% in terms of Add hits in the US (43% for Android 39% for Apple -- Admob). Have you ever wondered why this is a clear fact? Android is better at surfing the internet and allows tethering through apps like EasyTether, PDANet or rooted devices do so wirelessly which is a game changer. This being one of the reasons why the G1 is still around.

      If and when Android reaches the same level of penetration (years end if current trend continues, Apple activating 30000 sets a day and going down, while Android activations are 60000 a day and going up). The activity on the Internet (Admob and Quatrro, Flurry Metrics) should paint an interesting picture.

      As you've seen with Palm. Once you become second after being top dog. Regaining your throne becomes a real big challenge (not impossible). Apple went through that in the past. And the day Steve can't to do his Jobs (pun intended), it will suffer MS fate, as it did once before.

      Android is a community based effort, where million of bright engineers and developers world wide are working on making it better. Not just one mans vision with a few thousand talented people at best.

      Here is where the difference lies. And this is why Android will persist over the long haul compared to Apple's proprietary vision. More ideas, more concept and led by imagination of many more people than Apple. This is the reason MS has never been able to kill Linux. Google recognized this and gave it some direction, they know and understand open source better than anyone.

      I reiterate my words, lets wait and see.

      In Nov of 2008, when I defended the G1 after ditching Apple 3G many Apple fans or by standers with IT knowledge, like you, stated it was a product destined to oblivion. 18 months later its still around and it still proves to be a useful tool. The use of custom roms (and choices you have) make it very versatile.

      Hope some concepts were clarified for you ;)
      • Android's limitation

        Forked and fragmentation. show me a G1 with decent 2.1 upgrade. If
        you upgrade with the ones on XDA or AndroidSpin, youtube sucks,
        camcorder is gone. Where as on iPhone 1st Gen I still can have all the
        features of iPhone OS 3.2 and even 4.0 minus few
        like multitasking. I am not saying Android sucks, but Google doesn't
        have control on it and sooner or later people will lose interest because
        it doesn't have integrated User Experience and as long as more are
        involved in the control like device makers, OEMs, it gets worse. That is
        exactly is going with WinMo devices. Please show a valid proof that
        supports your statistics and logistics about million apps by November.

        One more thing, look here, iPad with only nearly a month of its release
        it already passed 18 months old Android,

        Ram U