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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the negative connotations,” says Winarsky. (Probably a good idea, given HAL’s murderous tendencies.) For the next year or so, the operation would go by the intentionally nondescript name Active Technologies.

The next step for Active was the traditional road show, where the team would have the privilege of giving their presentation all over again to dozens of venture firms. But for budding SRI spinoffs, the road show starts somewhere unusual: the “nVention” board, an advisory group of veteran venture capitalists from top-drawer firms like Kleiner Perkins and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. The nVention board members have a real job: providing advice, analysis, and networking help to a project’s founding team. But they get something potentially lucrative in return, namely, an early look at the projects that SRI considers most “venturable,” to use Winarsky’s word.

“They have no special rights, but when they see something outstanding, they have had a chance to see it first,” says Winarsky. In Active Technologies’ case, nVention board members from Menlo Ventures and Morgenthaler Ventures immediately wanted in on a deal. And in October 2008, the startup—which, by this point, had finally settled on the name Siri, in tribute to SRI—closed an $8.5 million Series A financing round, with Menlo managing director Shawn Carolan and Morgenthaler partner Gary Morgenthaler joining the board. (A $15.5 million Series B round followed in November 2009, led by the same firms.)

All the while, Cheyer and the other CALO engineers attached to the project had continued to improve their learning technology and adapt it to the mobile world. And along the way, they caught a couple of lucky breaks that hadn’t been part of the original plan but would prove key to Siri’s future. The first was the iPhone 3GS.

The Siri team had always known that smartphones were the right platform for a virtual personal assistant. The debut of the iPhone in 2007, and of the iTunes App Store in 2008, had provided a natural showcase and a powerful distribution mechanism for the software. But the 3GS, which came out in June 2009, was the first version of the iPhone that had both the internal processing power and the wireless bandwidth the Siri team needed to make their product work the way they wanted.

The second unexpected break was the realization that speech recognition systems from companies like Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo and Burlington, MA-based Nuance (another SRI spinoff, as it happens) had become powerful enough to use as Siri’s primary query interface. That was huge, because it gave the team a way to circumvent consumers’ reluctance to type on small screens.

“There was an estimate that the number of people who would continue to use the service dropped by 50 percent for every click,” says Winarsky. “But in the beginning, Siri did not even expect to do a launch with speech. It was expected to be text-only. I was on the board, and the team came to us and said, ‘Guess what? We’ve got a demo of speech running.’ We used the demo, and we said, ‘This is transformational.’ You don’t even have to click—you just ask.”

So in a way, all of Winarsky and Mark’s careful NABC analysis had only served to win the project a green light within SRI; it was the convergence of several other trends that provided Siri’s real fuel.

“We happened to be at the right place at the right time in many ways,” Winarsky acknowledges. “One, the smartphone. Two, the bandwidth—3G is terribly important. Three, natural language processing had reached a point where [a voice interface] could be done. Fourth, … Next Page »

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

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