Apple's growing smart for contextual search, Siri and services

Data driven insights; user recommendations; big data services and all the other buzzwords of the pre-Singularity techno-dystopia some say we're hurtling blindly toward are in Apple's sights, as evidenced by recent deals.

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[ABOVE: This huge computer used to fill a room. These days you've got more power in your pocket. C/o Computer History Museum]

New opportunities

Apple wants to unleash the power of its ecosystem, and wants to ensure that when it does, it isn't merely penetrating new markets but packing more rock 'n' roll inside existing ones.

Hits one and two on the Cupertino playing field aren't hard to identify: its deals with Beats and IBM both put different elements of crowd-infused intelligence in reach:

This isn't the end, of course. Apple's recently disclosed acquisition of Concept.io is also part of the play. While this deal is being discussed as part of the company's attempt to take a larger role in streaming music services, I think the most important element to the takeover is the acquisition of a good algorithm for content analysis.

"Swell delivers a personalized audio news feed from sites such as NPR, TED Talks and Harvard Business Review, similar to what Pandora delivers for music. As users skip or stay on content, that data is fed into the algorithm, which then suggests new content," says WSJ.

Intelligence matters

Apple last year coughed up $200 million to purchase Topsy Labs, a developer of big data analysis tools focused on Twitter. Apple also acquired Locationary last year.

There's several more relatively recent and relevant investments made by the firm: social search engine. Spotsetter, Burstly, Catch.com, Matcha, Chomp and  Polar Rose.

Each of these acquisitions adds intelligence to information. Yes, they will help Apple make better recommendations, but there's more at stake....

Apple already has its own internal team of big data scientists to help it gather all this information for iTunes and its other business units, if only to help guide its application development. Apple already gathers huge amounts of data (customer data, iTunes data, iTunes radio data, iBooks data and more), so it makes sense to make sense of it all.

What's interesting about Apple's moves into big data is that its focus seems to be on using analytical insights to improve business processes -- better Maps or better iTunes recommendations, for example -- but this will only be the tip of the iceberg, as its systems improve.

Towards contextual search

These experiments in context mean the company is investing pretty strongly in the next generation of search services: these will be contextual search engines that use logarithms based on user actions to figure out what a user needs, sometimes even before users figure out what they need.

It is interesting that Apple is making these strategic investments in logarithms to enable accurate prediction of end user needs. That's an industry that fellow Google rival, Yahoo! wants to get into. And Siri will also see benefit from this added intelligence.

These are all signs that seem to favor an April prediction: “[W]e believe Apple will use collected information to bring more utility to end users’ lives by predictively delivering content and services,” Wells Fargo analysts said.

“By combining data points such as age, gender, location, calendar information, behavioral history, or even data mined from emails, like travel itineraries (and much more), Apple could effectively become a more proactive personal assistant."

I suspect that Apple has quietly been putting together these elements to enable powerful contextual services for its customers. It seems it has been pursuing these plans for an extensive period -- it's precisely this kind of stealthy operational efficiency you should expect from Tim Cook's Apple as it seeks new growth sectors.

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