Apple's Siri Purchase Heats Up the Race Toward a Voice-Activated Future

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Although predicting anything regarding Apple (AAPL) is difficult, few industry watchers were surprised when Steve Jobs' team announced on Wednesday its acquisition of Siri, a software company that has developed an innovative voice-command technology which has rapidly become a hit on smartphones. The move matches Google's (GOOG) strong push into voice-activated computing, a priority that is on full display in the free voice-activated navigation application running on Android-powered smart phones.

Both Apple CEO Jobs and Google CEO Eric Schmidt have publicly stated that voice-activated computing will become a far more common and powerful way to interface with all manner of computing devices. For its part, Microsoft (MSFT) has long had intentions in this realm, as is obvious from its acquisition in 2007 of TellMe Networks, a directory-assistance system powered by a sophisticated voice-recognition technology.

While most smartphones already allow some voice command options, their built-in tools remain relatively crude. (For example, on Apple's iPhone the built-in voice-command software can't recognize the names of my Indian friends unless I mangle the pronunciations when requesting a call). Siri's software takes voice commands to a more interesting and useful level by tapping into various Web applications to help a user perform tasks. For example, a Siri user could tell his phone, "I want to buy Yankees tickets next month on a Saturday," and the system might pull up a Ticketmaster page where Yankee tickets were on sale.

This type of task-oriented computing has long been the Holy Grail for both standard computers and smartphones alike. But making tasks voice accessible is even more critical for smartphones: Those small screens and keypads are comfortable enough for basic Web surfing and emailing, but they make performing more complex tasks rather tedious and slow. Making complex tasks voice accessible will essentially turn smartphones into far more useful life tools -- and more valuable ones. Equally important, this degree of voice control will make the devices and their key voice software the focal points for all search efforts, moving that node of power away from browsers to the software running the smart phones or the computers (which explains why Google, Microsoft and Apple are all rapidly converging on operating systems as the next battleground in the tech wars).

Apple is rumored to have paid in excess of $200 million for Siri, which had collected $24 million in venture backing. The buy is Apple's third this year, following the acquisitions of chip-maker Intrinsity and mobile advertising network Quattro Wireless (the latter having been a quick reaction to Google's purchase of an even larger mobile advertising network). With the Siri buy, I'd expect that Apple's next generation iPhone will make huge improvements in voice capability, starting with a voice-activated navigation capability (possibly paired with an app from TomTom, the big GPS gun on the iPhone to date). Personally, I can't wait for the day when I can make dinner reservations, buy movie tickets, or find a taxi on any major smartphone without breaking a sweat -- or tapping on a tiny keyboard.
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