The Story of Siri, from Birth at SRI to Acquisition by Apple—Virtual Personal Assistants Go Mobile

6/14/10Follow @wroush

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other organizations. And while a government agency like DARPA may be the instigator of a specific breakthrough, the government “is almost never the right market” for such innovations, Winarsky says.

So SRI spends a lot of time figuring out what is the right market for each technology it creates. It sifts through the possibilities using a simple formula called NABC, for Need, Approach, Benefits, and Competition. SRI president (and Xconomist) Curt Carlson elaborates on this formula in his book Innovation: The Five Disciplines For Creating What Customers Want, which “everyone at SRI has to read,” according to Winarsky. But it really boils down to what Winarsky calls “venture capital 101—what you always want to see in a venture presentation.”

Through Vanguard, Winarsky and Mark believed they had already identified a need—in this case, for mobile data services that were easier to use. They also had an approach, in the form of the human-computer interaction model developed by the CALO researchers. The core of this model, Mark says, is “this idea of having a contextually aware system, meaning a system that has some knowledge of the user as well as some knowledge of what can be done in a particular space.”

But the “N” and the “A” by themselves aren’t enough; that’s why the 2,000-plus projects launched annually at SRI spawn only three or four spinoffs per year. In late 2006, to make sure they had nailed the expected benefits of a CALO-style personal assistant in the mobile world and that they understood the competition, Winarsky and Mark added CALO chief architect Adam Cheyer to their skunkworks team. “We brainstormed like crazy and iterated and iterated,” Winarsky recalls.

Eventually, convinced they had a good take on the NABCs, Mark, Winarsky, and Cheyer took their plans to SRI’s commercialization board, whose role is to apply the filters all over again. “We look for a quantitative value proposition,” says Winarsky. “We look for weaknesses. How do you find your white space; who are your competitors? Is it a license, is it a venture? Do you have the right patents? The board funds [finding] the answers to those questions.”

The commercialization board liked the overall mobile-assistant idea. In fact, members liked it enough to recommend bringing in a SRI entrepreneur-in-residence named Dag Kittlaus as the candidate CEO for the potential spinoff. (SRI, like many venture firms, keeps plenty of EIRs on hand as CEOs-in-waiting.) Kittlaus was a former executive from the Norwegian telecom giant Telenor Mobile, and had pioneered a push-media system for Motorola phones called Screen3.

It wasn’t until Kittlaus joined the project in mid-2007, Winarsky says, that the idea really began to gel. “Dag was a master of one other capability which we often need, which we call ‘bring it to life,’” he says. “It’s easy to focus on the market opportunity and the project, and leave it all abstract how you are going to solve the problem. Well, Dag put together a living demo of how [our technology] would solve the problem and how competitors, including Google, would solve the problem.”

At that point, the commercialization board was convinced, and “the venture was ready to be launched,” Winarsky says. Cheyer agreed to leave SRI and become the startup’s vice president of engineering. And with the board’s support, he and Kittlaus brought in SRI’s Tom Gruber, a user experience expert, to round out the founding team.

Up to this time, interestingly, the internal code name for the project was HAL, after the sentient computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “But we dropped that because of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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