Vlingo’s CEO Fires Back at Nuance Over Patent Lawsuit—Says “When they Couldn’t Win Yahoo’s Business, This Was Their Reaction”

As soon as news broke Tuesday that Burlington, MA-based Nuance Communications was suing Harvard Square startup Vlingo for allegedly infringing one of Nuance’s speech-recognition patents, I requested an interview with Dave Grannan, Vlingo’s CEO. Grannan, who came to Vlingo from Nokia last year, has spent quite a bit of time with Xconomy in the past, talking about Vlingo’s speech-to-text technology and its deal with Yahoo, which is using the disputed software for its oneSearch with Voice mobile search service.

I got through to Grannan Wednesday afternoon. He politely upbraided me for the provocative headline I attached to yesterday’s post on the lawsuit. Grannan also shared his opinion that Nuance is a historically litigious company that’s crying foul over the oneSearch technology because it couldn’t win Yahoo’s business using its own speech recognition systems. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: Thanks for making time to talk.

Dave Grannan: Sure. The first thing is that I did want to register an official complaint with you, in terms of the headline you ran yesterday—“Nuance Suit Against Vlingo Could Shut Down Yahoo’s Voice-Driven Mobile Search Service.” My issue with that is that there has been an allegation of infringement. The only way something gets shut down is if there is proof in court that that is the case. So that headline is achieving for Nuance exactly what they are trying to achieve, which is using the media to jump to a conviction.

X: I see your point. I wrote that headline. In my defense, it did include the word “could.” And the lead paragraph in the article makes it clear that a shutdown would only be a worst-case scenario, if Nuance won the injunction against you that they’re seeking. I think we’ve seen that these patent infringement suits actually can lead to shutdowns, as with the NTP injunction against RIM that nearly shut down the Blackberry service. But I can see your point of view, so thanks for sharing that, and I’ll make sure to include it when we publish this interview.

DG: Thanks. But mainly, of course, we wanted to talk about the substance of Nuance’s allegation.

X: Right. What do you think they’re trying to accomplish here?

DG: To me, this is the clearest admission yet from Nuance that they cannot compete with us in the marketplace, so they want to move the competition to the courtroom. I think their intent is to damage us in the marketplace. Their press release yesterday was the first we’d heard about the lawsuit. One would think that if they had a legitimate concern about intellectual property they would have just approached us and told us. This was clearly intended to be a marketing kind of event, to harm our business.

As far as the patent itself goes, we do not make use of the patent they’ve pointed out here. In our minds, it’s a very limited patent. Further, we have some very serious doubts as to the patent’s validity to begin with. It’s our intent to very vigorously defend ourselves and fight this.

X: My reading of the patent is that it covers a way to adapt speech-recognition algorithms so that they get better over time as they collect more data from speakers. And there is definitely an adaptive element to Vlingo’s technology, isn’t that right?

DG: There is absolutely an adaptive element to our technology. But the way in which we do it is different than what’s described in the patent they cite.

X: In a public statement about the suit earlier today, you said that Vlingo’s speech recognition technology is based in part on technology you license from IBM. So are you basically saying that you’d be able to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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