Apple acquired machine-learning startup Laserlike in a likely effort to boost its artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, including for Siri, the iPhone maker’s virtual assistant that faces stronger competition from Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Apple made the acquisition late last year, The Information reported.
Apple confirmed the purchase, but a spokesperson declined to discuss the company’s strategy. Laserlike was founded by three former Google engineers and had developed a smartphone app that’s no longer available in Google or Apple’s app stores. The app was described as an "interest search engine" that provided a customized index of news, web, video and local content, MacRumors reported.
The Laserlike team joined Apple’s AI group led by John Giannandrea, a former Google executive who joined Apple last year. Apple last month promoted Giannandrea to its executive team amid a reordering of priorities among its services, AI, hardware and retail divisions, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Apple’s acquisitions typically signify areas that the company has prioritized for growth, in this case enhancing its AI capabilities. Laserlike's tech could potentially be used enable Siri to provide more personalized content to users. As sales of Apple's flagship iPhone falter, the tech giant has put greater emphasis on its fast-growing services business that encompasses the App Store, Apple Music and Apple Pay. The Laserlike acquisition preceded Apple's agreement last month to buy Pullstring, a startup that enables the design and publishing of voice apps.
App needs more developers to make Siri-enabled apps to better compete with Amazon and Google, which have thousands of voice-powered apps for Alexa and Google Assistant, respectively. Apple acquired Siri in 2010 and integrated the app into the iPhone 4S the following year. Since then, the company has seen rivals develop their own highly rated voice assistants and move quickly into the market for connected-home devices like smart speakers.
Apple had to delay the release of its HomePod smart speaker from 2017, giving Amazon and Google a chance to solidify their dominance in the product category. Amazon has a 70% share of the U.S. smart-speaker market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Google Home trails with 24% of the installed base while Apple's HomePod is a distant third with only 6% of the market. About 66 million smart speakers have been sold in the United States.
Apple also faces strong competition in services that might hinder its plans to diversify revenue away from the iPhone. While Apple Music has 50 million paid subscribers, streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have more paid subscribers and a bigger audience. Apple is scheduled to make a major announcement on March 25 that analysts expect will include more details about a planned streaming TV service and digital newsstand.
Apple last month acquired U.K. startup DataTiger in a sign that the iPhone maker seeks to boost its digital marketing for its services business. Apple’s acquisitions also include the Texture magazine subscription service and Akonia Holographics, which makes technology for augmented reality (AR) lenses. Apple is said to be developing a mass-market AR headset that will rely on the iPhone for processing power, internet connection and location services.