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What Does Siri’s Acquisition by Apple Mean — And Where Might SRI Innovations Next Lead?

By   /  April 28, 2010  /  No Comments


(Photo: Siri founders Tom Gruber, Dag Kittlaus, and Adam Cheyer)

Siri’s acquisition by Apple is official. Terms of the deal couldn’t be disclosed by Gary Morgenthaler of Morgenthaler Ventures and Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures, co-lead investors in Siri and collaborators with SRI International, the original developer of the core technology platform that was licensed to Siri and spun out in the fall of 2007. Their agreements with Apple stipulate that they can’t talk about the transaction or Apple’s plans for Siri. But they had some other thoughts to share with The SemanticWeb Blog about what the acquisition represents in a larger sense, and what else we may see emerge from the SRI incubator.

“What I can say is that Siri and the excitement about Siri really represents the importance of a much more connected web, a much more information-based web, and the emergence of knowledge – metadata — around what the content is that’s on the web,” says Morgenthaler. “Siri embodies that, and the excitement around Siri as an independent company and potential acquisition candidate is a recognition of that.”

With approximately a quarter million downloads to its credit so far, Siri’s tapped into what the semantic web should be about – making it easier to find what you need on the Web and do what you have to. “They’ve taken a lot of the complexities of the semantic web and hidden them behind an amazingly simplified user interface for users to easily get things done,” he says. “A person downloading it from the app store is not worried about RDF or ontologies but about bookinga taxi. That is the beauty of a great consumer product.”

So, does Apple’s acquisition mean you’ll never get a chance to use the Virtual Personal Assistant on your Blackberry or Android? The VCs aren’t comfortable saying never – that’s a long time, after all.

The question of what can be done with the core technology that was licensed by Siri may be interesting to follow in a few ways. For example, Morgenthaler cites as one of the core and most innovative technologies coming out of SRI – which led the ‘CALO: Cognitive Assistant That Learns and Organizes’ DARPA project – Active Ontologies. Maybe what’s most important about SRI and CALO’s Active Ontologies innovation, he says, was to create passive inferencing that takes one from node to node in a given ontology and lets one reach conclusions and drive to actions based on those conclusions. “The Siri architecture is really a breakthrough in that regard,” he says. “It enables the active semantic web, not just a web of interconnected meaning but it lets you infer conclusions and drive to actions…. Siri takes that from SRI and I can’t imagine a better company [than Apple] to take this forward.”

So, can any other organization potentially leverage the Active Ontology innovation? The VCs have the impression that SRI has the core rites to ownership of that technology, and gave exclusive use of it in a specific domain to Siri. So it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to expect to see other applications of that tech in other domains.

SIRI was in the vanguard of leveraging the AI-based apps and applications that relate to the semantic web developed by SRI. Morgenthaler credits Norman Winarsky with doing a fine job in packaging up spinout technologies from SRI, and expects it will do more spinouts on related technologies. Any specifics? “The suite of technologies under the CALO project was quite broad,” says Carolan, and inclusive of natural language recognition and understanding, web services delegation and integration is a piece, personalization, as well as stuff Siri didn’t even touch around the intelligent desktop. “So we really feel like this [Siri] is an amazing application but the first of what I think will be many killer apps around machines just getting smarter,” he says.

Can Apple learn anything from this acquisition? “It makes sense that Apple would acquire Siri,” says David Siegel, author of The Power of Pull (book and blog) – and the man who last year wrote an open letter to Apple on why he should be its next CEO. “The question is now whether they will integrate that kind of thinking and approach into more of their products,” he says. “Apple has a long way to go, not just to catch up to what’s happening in the world of semantic applications but in switching their business model from push to pull. I’m worried that those who have gotten best at push may in the long run be a victim of their own success.” He also advises them to buy Zumodrive next” They help people stream their own media, and that’s a small but important gradual step toward the world of pull.”

About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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