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Apple Moving To Close Gap With Android On Speech, Navigation

As a long-time Android user I can tell you two specific areas where Android beats the iPhone’s otherwise superior user experience hands down: speech and navigation.

All text fields on Android devices are speech-enabled, including email, SMS and the search box on any site. The iPhone offers “voice control commands” that allow users to initiate a call or play music with speech. But the breadth of what you can do on the iPhone with voice is much more narrow. There is of course voice search on the Google and Bing apps, but that has to do with Google and Microsoft’s own technology and nothing to do with Apple.

Seeking Speech Deal

This morning several outlets are reporting that there’s some sort of new or renewed discussion going on between Apple and leading speech firm Nuance. Nuance provided the front-end speech capability to Siri, which Apple acquired almost exactly a year ago. Nuance also offers speech-powered apps (e.g., Dragon Search) for the iPhone and has an excellent speech-enabled keyboard in FlexT9 for Android.

One can safely assume that Apple clearly understands a lack of broad “speech enablement” is a competitive weakness for the iPhone. This argues that Apple is moving to fix that in a deal with Nuance.

Some have speculated that this deal would be an outright acquisition (and there was a rumor last year to that effect). However Apple doesn’t need to acquire Nuance to get the benefit of its technology. Apple probably also doesn’t have to worry that Google or Microsoft would buy Nuance, because they already have major speech assets.

Any acquisition price would perhaps be prohibitively high (more than $6 billion) and include an enterprise business that is generally unrelated to anything else Apple is doing. So some sort of speech licensing deal with Nuance is more probable.

That brings us to weakness number two: maps/navigation.

Replacement for Google Maps Coming Soon?

One of the key use cases on smartphones is mapping and directions. Right now the Apple relies on Google Maps, though there are many other mapping and navigation apps for the iPhone. However the Google Maps experience on the iPhone is anemic compared with Google Maps and Navigation for Android.

Google has withheld releasing a version of Navigation for the iPhone largely for competitive reasons. The company wants Android handsets to offer services and functions that you can’t find on the iPhone.

To a much lesser degree this is also what’s going on with the recent announcement of 3D buildings in Google Earth for Android’s “Honeycomb” tablet OS. Android tablets aren’t selling well at the moment and Google wants to bring more “sizzle” and differentiation to the user experience — though we’ll probably eventually see this functionality come to Google Earth on the iPad.

Apple Buying Mapping Assets

For at least the past two years Apple has been methodically assembling its own mapping assets. Here are a few highlights:

Apple also said the following in a job posting for an engineering position on the “Maps team.”

The iPhone has revolutionized the mobile industry and has changed people’s lives and we want to continue to do so. We want to take Maps to the next level, rethink how users use Maps and change the way people find things. We want to do this in a seamless, highly interactive and enjoyable way. We’ve only just started.

It seems pretty clear that Apple is going to show up at some point relatively soon (iPhone 5 time?) with a product or set of products intended to supersede Google Maps, perhaps with free navigation. (Apple could also buy a navigation company such as TeleNav for under $1 billion.)

But knowing Apple, and consistent with the language of the job posting above, the company wants to take maps and navigation “to the next level” and tie them in with other services and capabilities — think about Siri and the integration of a “personal assistant” somewhere in here too.

If Apple were to introduce its own mapping and navigation product, we’d probably see a version of Google Navigation for the iPhone show up pretty quickly thereafter. Regardless, Apple will likely be trying to address these two major Android competitive advantages, one way or another, with the release of iPhone 5.

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