Apple and Shazam: It’s not just about identifying songs

Apple’s purchase of Shazam might not be as splashy (or as expensive) as its $3.2 billion Beats buy, but it means much more to the iPhone.

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Shazam was a true game-changer as one of the first apps to appear in the App Store back in July 2008. With just a tap, Shazam could identify nearly any song you heard without needing to know anything about it. Shazam was a magical app that I used to show off my iPhone, and unlike all those other apps whose novelty wore off in just a few weeks (anyone remember iBeer?), Shazam has only gotten better over the years.

Apple has long had partnered with Shazam to power Siri’s song identification service, but now the Cupertino giant has confirmed that it is buying the company outright for a cool $400 million, a relative bargain in today’s tech dollars. On the surface, a Shazam purchase ensures that Siri will always be able to recognize the song you’re listening to and will provide a boost to Apple Music, but I think Apple has much bigger plans for the service.

Like everything else Apple seems to be doing now, it’s about augmented reality and machine learning. And it could be the thing that finally puts Siri back at the front of the pack.

Listen up

Shazam’s main strength is music identification, and that fits well into Apple’s current strategy. It’s not just Siri on our phones: AirPods, HomePod, and Apple Watch could benefit from Shazam’s uncanny ability to name that tune.

And we might not even have to ask. On the new Pixel phones, Google has implemented a feature that displays the name of a song playing nearby even if Assistant hasn’t been asked. It’s a neat feature that’s all done locally, and I use far more often than I thought I would. A similar feature would be great on the iPhone, and with Shazam’s massive library at Apple’s disposal it would be far superior to Google’s. 

pixel 2 now playing Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Shazam could let Apple implement a “Now Playing” feature on the next iPhone.

But where Shazam could really help Siri’s ears is with HomePod. Apple wants its new home speaker to “reinvent home music,” but if all it does is sound good, that’s hardly revolutionary. If Apple could leverage its Shazam acquisition to build some serious smarts into HomePod, it could be a difference maker. We will already be able to ask Siri to play things like the most popular song in 1986, but Shazam could amplify its knowledge considerably. It would be great to tap your AirPods and ask “Play the song that goes like this ...” or “Play that Ed Sheeran song about Ireland.” Shazam might not be able to do that now, but the groundwork is certainly in place, particularly when paired with Apple's own AI musical capabilities.

And it could go beyond simple song identification too. Apple could use Shazam to create personalized playlists right on HomePod, based on your listening habits and tastes. Apple Music already creates mixes that are pretty great, but Apple's machine learning could use what it hears to create customized playlists for the time of day that only play in our homes. That alone could be a reason to spend $350 on a HomePod. 

Seeing is believing

Shazam may be a household name when it comes to song identification, but the underlying technology has much broader application. Back in 2015, Shazam added visual recognition to its portfolio, and while it hasn’t caught on quite as well as its audio capabilities, Apple’s new AR push could definitely benefit.

pixel 2 google lens art indentification Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Google Lens can ID paintings and buildings.

Even with ARKit, Apple is lagging when it comes to augmented reality, especially on the AI side of things. Most notably, Google has introduced a technology with the Pixel 2 called Lens, which works with Assistant to identify and interact with real-world objects. For example, you could point your phone at a building and Assistant will tell you about it, or you can scan a business card and it will automatically be added to your contacts. Google will soon be rolling out Lens to all Android phones, and once it does, Siri on the iPhone will seem even more outdated than it already does.

But Shazam could give Apple a real boost here. While the public face of Shazam’s visual recognition has mainly focuses on brands—like scanning a movie poster to access a trailer—but Apple could tap into Shazam’s engine to give Siri a whole new class of intelligence. We’ve read enough rumors about the Apple car and Apple glasses to see that AR is the next area of focus, and Shazam could help bring that future into view. We know Shazam will amplify Siri's ears, but it could be a boost to its vision too.

Better but not exclusive

When Apple bought Beats, I expected Apple would force users to buy an iPhone if they wanted a new pair. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Apple has made the experience better on the iPhone with seamless pairing, a feature that I suspect has actually sold more iPhones than forcing people to switch.

must have wear shazam

Don't worry Android users, Apple probably won't take Shazam away from the Play Store.

I expect something similar with Shazam. While conventional thinking would suggest that Apple would shutter the Android app in a few months, I don’t think that will be the case. But I do think Shazam will be better on iOS. Android users will get the same song-identifying Shazam that’s available today while iOS users will enjoy more features, even beyond what’s baked into the newer products. Apple likely won’t cut people off, but it will add enough cool features for people to notice. I think we’ll see a delineation between the Shazam app on the Play Store and the App Store, as Apple enhances its capabilities on iOS and adds exclusive features.

Apple’s purchase of Shazam might have been a bigger deal three years ago, but it could have much more of an impact on your Apple devices now. Earlier today, TechCrunch reported that Spotify and Snap were also interested in purchasing Shazam, so the potential here is more than just cornering the market on song identification. Apple is poised to leap into the AI and AR race with both feet, and Shazam could be the perfect technology to vault them to the head of the class.

And if not, well, at least Siri will be better than Assistant and Cortana at IDing songs. That's worth $400 million, right?

 
 
  
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