Apple's acquisition of speech recognition company speaks to Siri improvements

Worried Siri didn’t get enough love in iOS 7? Apple’s not done with the intelligent assistant just yet, if one of its newer acquisitions is any indication. As first reported by TechCrunch, Cupertino last year picked up U.K.-based Novauris Technologies, a firm that specializes in speech recognition.

Apple confirmed the acquisition to TechCrunch, though as usual it didn’t deign to give any further information about the deal. Novauris itself was essentially a rebuilt version of the research and development team at Dragon Systems U.K., the British subsidiary of Dragon Systems, which created voice recognition and dictation apps like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Dragon Dictate. Dragon itself is now owned by Nuance—which provides speech recognition for Siri.

So, what to make of the acquisition? Talent is clearly a major factor here, as with most Apple acquisitions, but there are elements of Novauris’s technology that could be significant in Cupertino’s future plans for its voice-based assistant. 

For one thing, Novauris has been developing its software for both the server-based and the embedded markets, meaning that it can perform speech recognition on the device itself, rather than routing the information through a remote server.

While that technology may not yet be at the point where it can duplicate all of the capabilities of speech recognition running on a more powerful server, removing or reducing the dependency on a network connection could help both issues with speed of response as well as situations with poor connectivity. (One of the biggest problems I encounter with Siri on a daily basis involves bouncing between network connections.) If nothing else, it could provide a fallback for some capabilities when the network is inaccessible. And, as mobile hardware gets more and more powerful, the potential for doing more on-device processing goes up. 

The second, and potentially more significant part of this acquisition, falls into the strategic realm. As mentioned above, Siri’s capabilities are currently backed by Nuance. Buying a firm that specializes in similar technology could help reduce that dependency, thus bringing a major strategic asset in house, in the same way that Apple pulled in the likes of AuthenTec and Siri itself. If Apple is intent upon making Siri a key feature of iOS (and possibly eventually OS X), then it behooves the company to have the core technology under its own roof.

Plus, with challenges from Google Now and, more recently, Microsoft’s Cortana, voice recognition is becoming an even more hotly contested field. It’s unclear how soon this acquisition will bear fruit for Apple, but given that the deal happened late last year, we could potentially see major improvements to Siri in iOS 8 this fall. If prior years are any indication, we can expect to hear more from Apple at the recently announced Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

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