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Move could boost Siri, help Apple stay competitive with Google and Microsoft on natural language processing

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) just might be feeling the heat from its recent clashes with partner Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN) and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFTjust-announced Cortana voice assistant, which rivals the Siri assistant that Apple and Nuance developed.  But it's got a powerful secret weapon in its silo, according to sources.

I. Knowledge Graphing: A Booming Business

Following the Cortana news, Apple has reportedly scooped up Novaurius, a graph theory firm.  According to sources the deal was completed last year.  Novaurius' massive database is now the secret weapon Apple is using to make Siri become a little smarter.  The acquisition was reported by TechCrunch which writes that Apple indirectly confirmed the purchase.

Novauris is led by Yoon Kim, Ph.D.  Yoon Kim started his career as an electrical engineering researcher with Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University before gaining experience in the industry as a veteran of several language processing startups.

Novauris

The company was co-founded in 1992 as a spinoff of Dragon Systems R&D U.K. Ltd., the research wing of voice dictation company Dragon Systems Inc.  Apple and Novaurius already share a common tie through Nuance; Nuance purchased Dragon Dictatation in 2001 following Dragon Systems' Nov. 2000 bankruptcy -- the immediate result of a disastrous purchase by a Belgian firm.

Dragon Systems R&D veterans Melvyn Hunt, Ph.D and John Bridle co-founded Novaurius, which was thankfully independent of Dragon Systems by 2000 and hence able to escape its collapse.

Novaurius currently has a database of 245 million graph objects, connected to each other and accessible via fast voice queries.

Apple was the only top internet firm to not have such a database.  Google Inc. (GOOG) similarly acquired Metaweb four years ago in 2010 to get its hands on Freebase, which formed the basis of Google's Knowledge Graph -- the database that drives Google Now.  The purchase price for Metaweb was not revealed.

Here's a quick video from Google's MetaWeb that kind of explains what a knowledge graph does:



Microsoft's effort is even older.  It bought Norway's FAST Speech and Transfer for $1.2B USD back in 2008.  It continued to develop it at Microsoft Labs under the codename Trinity, eventually productizing it under the name Satori.  Satori helps drive Cortana.  

Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) in April 2013 spent $26M USD to acquire True Knowledge, another knowledge graph database firm.  Facebook, Inc. (FB) has a knowledge graph database project of its own, dubbed Open Graph.  Open Graph is less focused on speech and more focused on social ties.

II. More Work Ahead for Apple

For Apple the acquisition helps bring it closer to Microsoft and Google's acquired abilities, but it doesn't necessarily close the gap entirely.  Microsoft and Google's graphs are both estimated to be several times larger than Novauris' with a couple billion entries.  Of course if Novauris has faster searches, more accurate searches, or better quality/structured data, the entry deficit may be a non-factor, so the situation isn't clear cut.

And the acquisition doesn't solve Apple's issues with its partner Nuance.  Nuance was adamant about offering its technology as cross platform services, both direct to customers and as licensed offerings.  Google and Apple both reportedly made bids for Nuance in 2013.  Google's was rumored to be around $6B USD.  

Apple's attempt was reportedly the work of major shareholder Carl Icahn, who sought to perform a hostile takeover, but was thwarted after Nuance reportedly adopted poison pill policies to protect its independence.

Siri
Apple relies heavily on Nuance for its Siri solution, but the relationship has been stressed of late.
[Image Source: AP]

It's clear that Apple relies heavily on Nuance for Siri's functionality.  It's possible Microsoft's Cortana is also driven by undisclosed licensed Nuance technology as well, given its remarkable similarity to Siri.

The tight competition makes it of vital importance for Apple to try to repair its relationship with Nuance which was doubtless damaged by Mr. Icahn's acrimonious failed takeover plot.

Source: TechCrunch





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