Apple just dumped a truckload of money at the doorstep of Siri, a startup you've probably never heard of, which makes a voice search iPhone app you've probably never used. Why? The answer, as usual, has to do with Google.
So, this Siri app, it's pretty interesting. Here's how I described it back in February when it came out:
Speech recognition apps recognize speech. Search apps search. Concierge apps consolidate services. Siri does all of the above. The app is paired with OpenTable, MovieTickets, StubHub, CitySearch and TaxiMagic, and recognizes a respectable number of commands with surprising accuracy. Success seems to vary voice to voice, and some types of requests seem to have a higher catch rates than others, but really, just find out for yourself-it's free, and very impressive.
The app promises to take your requests, and return you a result, whether it be the form of a search page, a booking at a movie, or other advice on what to do with your Friday night. Super-complicated queries like "Where can I find a table for two at an Italian restaurant near the mall, at 8:00?" are routed to the correct service, and within a few taps, in theory, you've got your rez. Not to mention, the app is infinitely expandable: Siri can plug just about any service they want into their app, which is really just a framework for recognizing and parsing voice commands. If you're wondering about the voice and parsing tech, it's legit—and at one point in its history, DARPA-funded.
So, anyway, back to the question at hand: Why did Apple buy them? The answer should be apparent in any recent screenshot of Android:
See that little microphone icon? That's Google's voice search, which is present in all Android handsets that run version 1.6 of the OS or higher. iPhone OS's built-in voice search feature, Voice Control, is a glorified voice command system, meaning that it's phone-facing, and quite limited. Google's, on the other hand, is internet-facing, which means that when you're talking to an Android phone, you're talking directly to the Google search megasystem. Google's voice search isn't as ambitious as Siri when it comes to how it deals with the voice data, but at least it's there.
Apple hasn't made any statements about what it's going to do with Siri, but the answer seems obvious: They're getting into search. Voice search, to be exact. And in competitive terms, they're catching up with—and possible even shutting out—one of their biggest competitors. The easiest way to get decent voice search on your iPhone right now is to download an app made by Google; Siri, though good, doesn't have the kind of visibility that the big G's app does. Apple can't be too happy about Google so conspicuously picking up their slack in the voice search space. Hence, Siri, and the deeply attractive possibility of Siri-like search finding its way into iPhone OS, as a native, Voice Control-style feature.
Or, you know, Apple could just be cannibalizing this little startup for talent, because they can, and that's what they do sometimes. But the first hypothesis is more exciting, so let's stick with that, k? We have a narrative to maintain here, people! [Silicon Alley Insider]