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Apple created Siri. Why did it need a tiny Irish biometric vox player?


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It is rare that one can know with some certainty why Apple Inc. buys a company. That is not the case with its acquisition this month of a small Irish voice recognition startup.

Apple executives paid an undisclosed amount for Voysis, a speck of a firm in Ireland that has created a full-stack biometrics application that retailers can buy to add shrewdly limited voice search and data navigation. Anyone who asked Apple why heard the company’s standard sniffy response: We buy little ones all the time and we are not discussing it with you.

In fact, CEO Tim Cook told CNBC last year the he signed checks for acquisitions as often as every two weeks.

What is special about Voysis? Siri needs an update, but all of Big Voice (Apple, Google, and Amazon) is stale. The applications’ initial charm is gone, and people are realizing how limited each of them really is.

Their feature set is too similar, too. The average consumer is not deciding brand loyalty over a voice app.

But what is more important is that, like Big Voice, a lot of smaller players and even researchers are trying to make a voice assistant with the broadest possible capabilities at the expense of depth of utility.

Not Voysis.

Last November, John Fitzpatrick, at that time Voysis’ vice president of product and engineering might as well have trying to raise Apple’s antenna during a podcast with Irish Tech News.

Fitzpatrick, now artificial-intelligence and machine-learning engineering manager for Siri development at Apple, said Voysis saw the folly in breadth at this point in the technology’s history.

The company’s goal was to go deep in a vertical or even for a retailer’s desktop and mobile channels. He described how the company would pull apart a client’s online history, strategy, goals — even user profiles — to better understand context and visitor needs.

Deployments, he said, have addressed tasks where voice is the best interface, and plug them into a client’s system. The result is a deeply useful experience he said, “but ask what the movie times are your local cineplex, it’s not going to understand that.”

That approach might make a lot of sense when Apple tries to simultaneously satisfy desktop, tablet, phone and watch buyers. “That’s how you make it really accurate,” Fitzpatrick said, by not trying to make it Skynet, a reference he dropped in to the machine-conscious antagonist of the “Terminator” movies.

The approach would do well for autonomous cars, a new arena in which Apple hopes to impress. Systems in that segment, assuming Apple sticks with it, will be tasked with serving users in an entirely new (for Apple) physical environment with life-or-death consequences. As well, Voysis has customers in commerce and audio streaming, both areas that Cook covets.

Apple also undoubtedly was happy that Voysis owns a full-stack product. “We’re not chaining together a lot of (other vendors’) components.” There is simplicity in that, but more significant is that the company releases updates and fixes without needing to cajole an outside player.

If nothing else, Cook has to have appreciated the strategic importance of that strategy.

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