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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Did Amazon Acquire Yap to Rival Siri?

Short answer: No, it didn’t.

  • November 16, 2011

Everyone likes a good battle story. Rocky vs. Apollo Creed. Godzilla vs. Mothma. Apple vs. Amazon. Add talking robots to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a surefire blockbuster.

Which is probably why the tech blogosphere’s collective heart skipped beat when it was uncovered (via an SEC filing) that Amazon had acquired a startup called Yap.

Here, more or less, is the logic that most observers swiftly followed: “ ‘Yap’? That’s a verb meaning “to bark.” Barking is sort of like talking. Talking is what you do with Apple’s Siri! Yap therefore must be Amazon’s Siri-killer! Jeff Bezos is the new Steve Jobs!”

OK, the logic was perhaps a bit more nuanced than that: Yap, it turns out, is a company known for it’s voice-to-text voicemail transcriptions.

“Voice-to-text? That’s sort of what Siri does! I talk to her, and she writes down the things I say! Therefore Yap is the new–”

Wait. No. Tim Carmody over at Epicenter is one of the few who is getting this right. Because you talk to Siri, and Siri talks to you, everyone tends to think that what makes Siri powerful is talking. What makes Siri powerful is not that she listens, can convert those sounds in to words, and can talk back to you. What makes Siri powerful is that she understands those words. And there’s no evidence, yet, that Yap can do that.

As I explained in July, after speaking with Norman Winarsky, who was present at Siri’s birth years back: “Work on Siri began about eight years ago, when DARPA funded a massive AI initiative called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). The idea, says Norman Winarsky, vice president of ventures at SRI, based in Menlo Park, California, the prime contractor for CALO, was to develop a virtual personal assistant as good as the character ofRadar O’Reilly on the TV show M*A*S*H.” Siri doesn’t just talk, she thinks. And she had the origins of her brain in years of high-end military research.

As Carmody points out: “Unless Yap is hiding something deep within its labs that they’ve never shown to anyone, the company doesn’t have anything quite like that.” He offers an array of much more likely applications in which Yap might crop up in the future: the most likely, he says, is that “It’s a straight-up play for licensable patents and other IP.” Why pay a fee to use someone else’s tech when you can just buy up the company and charge everyone else for the privilege? He offers a few other scenarios, too: the most fun of which are an Amazon smartphone (OK, not super likely) and a play to commoditize the sort of voicemail transcription that folks like Google have only dabbled in. I wholeheartedly agree with Matt Thompson over at Nieman Journalism Lab that that last idea–universal instant translation–would be a “watershed moment for journalism,” which he calls “the Speakularity.”

The Yap acquisition is a puzzling one for Amazon, and potentially a very exciting one. But there’s simply no clear evidence that Yap will be part of some sort of Bezosian bid to bury Apple’s Siri.

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