The most talked about element of yesterday’s Apple event had to be Siri. The new feature of the iPhone 4S, born out of Apple’s purchase of the company by the same name in 2010, looks amazing. But one thing never mentioned during the keynote was a key piece of technology behind Siri: Nuance.
We first reported that Siri would be a key part of iOS 5 back in March. As we dug deeper, we learned that Apple and Nuance were involved in negotiations to make sure this could be a reality. You see, Siri does not work without Nuance. Though they initially tried Vlingo, Nuance was found to be the better technology. In fact, Siri was still using Nuance right up until Apple pulled the old standalone app from the App Store yesterday.
So, is Nuance a part of Apple’s implementation of Siri as well? Yes. Though, don’t bother trying to get anyone to admit that.
Given what we had previously reported about the relationship between Apple and Nuance — such as the presence of Nuance technology on Apple’s remote servers — I just assumed that Nuance was a part of this new Siri package and figured that Apple simply didn’t want to go into the weeds, as it were, about how the technology works.
But then I got a strange email pitch immediately following the iPhone event. It was from Nuance’s PR team, sending a release seemingly about nothing. The headline heralded: “Voice: A Mainstream Interface for Mobile”! That may sound like a release about Nuance powering Siri for Apple, but it’s not. In fact, neither Apple nor Siri are ever mentioned once in the entire release.
Apple is briefly mentioned in the pitch lead-in I received. That starts:
Today is an exciting day, as Apple unveiled its new iPhone 4S with a compelling integration of voice technology that signifies an endorsement for voice from arguably the most inspirational innovator in mobile. And while these technologies are not new, voice as a mainstream, primary interface will be in the hands of millions and millions more consumers around the world.
Hmm. Nuance seemed to be going out of their way to not say that they were powering the awesome new Siri feature of the iPhone 4S. In fact, it almost reads like a company that just got its hat handed to it by Apple, and wanted to give the “it’s great to see a massive company validate the space” statement.
So I decided to ask the representative directly: is Nuance powering the new Siri feature? The only thing said in response: “Apple licenses Nuance’s voice technology for use in some of its products.” Followed by, “The company is not authorized to comment on specific capabilities or devices.”
In other words, yes, Nuance is powering Siri. But Apple clearly struck a deal with Nuance which precludes them from talking about it. This is Apple technology, this is not about Nuance, is how I imagine Apple may put it. Apparently, Nuance is happy enough with Apple’s undoubtedly large check for this licensing agreement that they are willing to keep quiet.
Or could it be about Apple eventually replacing Nuance as the backend to Siri, as Siri co-founder Norman Winarsky told 9to5 Mac a couple days ago? Maybe, but that seems fairly unlikely anytime soon. As Winarsky admits, “Nuance has far and away the most IP in speech synthesis technologies in the industry.”
As we’ve stated in our previous posts on the matter, that’s a key here. Even if Apple wanted and tried to come up with their own voice technology backend for Siri, they would have a hard time doing so without infringing on some of Nuance’s patents. Patents which Nuance CEO Paul Ricci is very well known to enforce to their maximum extent.
That’s why there are so few players in the space. One of them is Google. And guess who built that technology for them? Another Nuance co-founder (and key patent-holder) Mike Cohen. Apple doesn’t have a Mike Cohen on staff to build their own Nuance-style system. At least not yet.
So for now, it’s Apple and Siri sitting in a tree — with Nuance sitting behind Siri in an invisibility cloak.