Apple's attempt to silence Siri speaks volumes

By Jonny Evans

"The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it." George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion.

Apple [AAPL] sometimes goes a little too far in its attempt to keep its secrets. The most recent example? The way it tried to silence the UK voice of Siri with a fast and loose definition of what makes an "Apple employee".

You have been assimilated

The story's pretty simple: Voiceover artist Jon Briggs did a job six years ago in which he had to record thousands of sentences. These sentences were torn apart phonically to create a voice called Daniel, which later became the male voice of Siri (UK), .

That's fine and exactly what you'd expect: these voices are human voices with artificial intelligence, and the voices belong to actors working on a short-term contract.

Imagine Briggs' surprise when an Apple PR person rang him up to tell him he wasn't allowed to speak to the press about how he "laid down" the voice of Siri.

The call, which came shortly after the launch of the iPhone 4S, also warned him that Apple employees were not authorized to discuss its products:

"We're not about one person," the caller said.

The Weakest Link

Briggs was surprised, he has never had any contract with Apple. In exchange for a one-off fee, his recordings were made for Scansoft, which later merged with Nuance which now licenses Siri's voice recognition tech to Apple. Briggs is also the voice of The Weakest Link on UK TV.

What's interesting about this story is it underlines the depth of the deal between Apple and Nuance for the use of the voice recognition tech used inside Siri.

Nuance is -- without doubt -- the industry leader in voice recognition technology.

Earlier this year that company ramped-up its Apple product support with a range of voice recognition products for the Mac and iOS devices. For example, Nuance's Dragon Dictation app allows iPhone users to speak emails and text messages.

The company has also increased its staff headcount in recent months, bringing in new hires charged with building its Apple-related business.

Daniel and the iOS

Apple's attempt to silence the actor who will forever be known as "Daniel" underlines just how strategically important Apple considers its industry-leading personal assistant technology.

This isn't the end of Apple's plans, just a point along the road.  If Google has finally begun to concede that Apple is a threat, then it should open its eyes a little wider and see the train coming. With Android on its mind, Apple has evidently spent time taking a look at what Google has that it can do better.

Take Google Translate, for example. Is it really beyond belief that at some point Siri will be able to translate what you say into different languages? What about Maps, AdSense and search? What else might Apple have in the pipeline?

As George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion also remarked, "Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day." With a company-wide desire to honor the memory of late co-founder, Steve Jobs, Apple will not be in the mood to squander its chances.

Learning curves

Siri is a growing intelligence: Nuance has previously told me that its servers store an analysis of each voice using its apps (anonymized, of course) and puts this analysis into its central database -- in other words, the voice recognition technology will become increasingly accurate and sophisticated as it is used more extensively.

Apple's Siri is likely to follow the same learning curve, meaning, for example, its support for UK and US dialects will rapidly improve as people use the service.

Once it has mastered natural requests in multiple languages, surely translation of such requests is the next logical step?

What's the deal?

I am curious as the extent of the exclusivity of Apple's Nuance deal. It is certain that whatever deal Apple did do will have seen an exchange of cash and is likely to have also seen a demand for exclusive access to voice recognition technologies for some extended period. It's beyond conjecture to imagine just how long an exclusive use Apple may have negotiated.

It is also not unreasonable to speculate Apple may have attempted to acquire Nuance for the voice recognition technologies it owns. Nuance is (as mentioned above) the world's leading voice recognition firm. An acquisition may have to pass stiff regulatory hurdles.

I assume Apple's enemies must already now be calling Nuance in an attempt to secure their own licensing deals for voice recognition technologies, even while they attempt to assemble solutions with anything like the level of pro-active intelligence of the current implementation of Siri.

(Don't expect Siri on older devices, yet: "Siri only works on iPhone 4S and we currently have no plans to support older devices," a recent Apple statement said.)

What is certain that Apple's secrecy about the workings of its technologies sometimes need a little moderating. After all: "Does a freelance worker from six years ago count as an Apple employee?" Perhaps Apple's teams should have asked Siri.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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