Apple just dumped a truckload of money at the doorstep of 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 app: It's called Siri, and it's pretty interesting. Here's how I described it back in February when it came out:
Speech recognition apps recognise 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 recognises 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 shopping centre, at 8pm?" 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 recognising and parsing voice commands. There's obvious and huge potential here.
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 possibly 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 cannibalising 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]