Is Apple about to lose Siri to Samsung?

Credit: Image credit: Antonio Silveira

The core technology behind Apple's voice-command assistant Siri may wind up in Samsung phones, which would leave Tim Cook with a whole chicken coop's worth of egg on his face for letting this get away.

Siri is the product of SRI International, a research lab that has created many technologies and biosciences products over its 68-year history. The digital assistant was spun out as Siri Inc., which Apple acquired in 2010. But the voice recognition engine is provided by Nuance Communications, the same company that makes Dragon Naturally Speaking software and Swype keyboard software. This only came to light after Apple bought Siri.

This past June, Nuance and Samsung began merger talks, but nothing came of it. At the time, the two companies said talks had "slowed" due to "complexities." But they didn't say it was dead.

Guess what? The talks are back on. The first hint came in June, after the company missed the quarterly projections. The Wall Street Journal then brought up the talks with Samsung and also noted the company had taken financial steps that could indicate a buyout was imminent.

The company’s earnings report for June stated that Nuance was redeeming $250 million in 2027 convertible notes. By calling back the debt, that would save the future acquirer around $50 million from a debt-to-share conversion.

Here's where it gets really interesting: Carl Icahn has a 20% stake in Nuance. Seeking Alpha postulates that Icahn took a 20% share without saying a word (when he normally has a big mouth) because he wanted to keep the price down for a potential sale.

So if Nuance is gearing up for a sale, Apple is in a bind. Sure, it could outbid Samsung, but that will get expensive. Nuance's market cap is currently $4.8 billion. If Apple wins, then it would be stuck with all of Nuance's business, in things like health care and imaging, that it has no use for, even though Nuance's footprint is huge, as SA points out:

... By adding NUAN's healthcare division into Samsung's small healthcare business, Samsung could be gaining access to 450,000 clinicians, 10,000 healthcare institutions, 50% of radiology reports (focus area for Samsung), and 98% of most connected hospitals. In the consumer/mobile segment, Samsung could benefit from NUAN's growing relations with car manufacturers as connected cars are growing in prevalence. Samsung could also become a leading provider of virtual personal assistants and speech recognition software... [and] Samsung would gain access to a customer base of 750,000 voice-enabled televisions, 250M voice-enabled phones, 20M voice-enabled cars, 1M copies of Dragon desktop and 800M mobile keyboards.

It would be beyond embarrassing for Apple to lose Siri, which it inevitably would if Samsung gets Nuance. Samsung loves to antagonize Apple to no end.

The alternative for Apple would be to grab Kasisto, a personal voice assistant technology also developed by SRI. Kasisto is said to be more advanced than Siri in that it can work with individual apps.

Whatever happens, this is going to be tough for Apple, and it will give Cook's critics more ammo to say "this would never happen under Steve."

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