Did Apple Buy Grokr?

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Circumstantial evidence may suggest that Apple has acquired the predictive search app Grokr. And if they haven’t done, they should do.

Grokr has been called the “Google Now for iOS.”

With Grokr’s predictive search capability and Siri’s natural language capability combined into a single feature could put Apple in the overall lead in the crucial area of virtual assistant technology.

Here’s why Apple needs to buy Grokr (and why I think they already did).

Why Apple Needs Grokr (Or Something Like It)

iPhone users who have seen head-to-head comparisons of Siri vs Google Now such as this one, or who have used Google Now on their iPhones, may be tempted to believe the two services are pretty evenly matched.

But both these data points are misleading. The comparisons ignore the half of Google Now that Siri doesn’t even attempt, which is the pre-emptive data gathering. Just launching Google Now shows you results you didn’t search for, suggesting places to go, displaying the weather, distance to favorite locations, people’s birthdays, sports scores and other things. It actually reads your email, finds things in there that could fall through the cracks, then takes action on them.

For example, when Google Now sees Fandango movie tickets in your inbox, it will monitor the traffic conditions between you and the theater and tell you when you need to leave in order to get to the movie on time, even without you asking for anything.

Also: Google Now on a Nexus type phone (which includes actual Nexi and soon both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One) is better than on a regular Android phone and way better than on the iPhone. On the Nexus type phones, Now is integrated into both the user interface and the apps, so you can not only launch apps with voice but also initiate functions in those apps. On a Nexus, you swipe your thumb and say “navigate home” and the audible turn-by-turn directions start instantly.

One major difference between Google Now and Siri is that Google has a Knowledge Graph and Apple doesn’t. Apple relies on Wolfram-Alpha for much of its “knowledge.”

Google’s Knowledge graph scales massively in two ways. First, the actions of over a billion everyday users of Google’s various products automatically feed and improve the results. And second, Google is constantly and aggressively optimizing performance at the server level.

Apple has no control over Wolfram-Alpha’s improvement and performance. If Wolfram-Alpha fails to keep up with the Knowledge Graph, Google Now will just keep pulling further ahead of Siri over time.

Grokr, on the other hand, has a knowledge graph of its own. It also has a mechanism for both gathering real-time traffic information and integrating it into predictive drive times. It can even interrupt you and tell you to leave if you want to be on time for the meeting on your calendar.

Grokr also gets to know you. It browses your iPhone’s music library, then tells you when your favorite band will be playing in town. It reads your social network feeds to find out what you’re interested in, then points you to personally relevant content.

Siri by itself is already no match for Google Now, and can’t keep up in the future. But Siri plus Grokr is a different story. Grokr gives Siri a knowledge graph, predictive analytics and all the rest.

Once in possession of Grokr, Apple could and should integrate it into Siri. The usage of the Grokr knowledge base by Apple’s massive user base would accelerate its improvement, too.

There’s no question Apple should buy Grokr. The question is: Have they already done it?

The Circumstantial Evidence for a Grokr Acquisition

I have no inside information that Apple has acquired Grokr, nor have I heard even a rumor to that effect. And there’s no direct evidence that such an acquisition has taken place. However, there is some circumstantial evidence:

* Apple CEO Tim Cook said at AllThingsD’s D11 conference this week that Apple has acquired nine companies in the current fiscal year, which started September 30. Most of them were done in secret and have not been disclosed.

* Apple will be “rolling out the future of iOS” at its WWDC event June 10 (in a week and a half from the time of this post).

* The conventional wisdom is that Siri is awesome, but Google Now is better precisely because Google Now does what Siri cannot do and what Grokr can do: Convert contextual signals into pre-emptive information, essentially providing search results for the information the user should have searched for but didn’t.

* Grokr has been pulled from the iOS app store.

* Grokr announced on its site this week that Grokr is being terminated, to be replaced by a new product that does the same thing called NEXT.

* NEXT? Really? Is that an homage to Apple’s most famous acquisition?

* Grokr says that existing users will have their Grokr service “turned off” on June 3 — exactly one week before the start of Apple’s WWDC. (Why would they disrupt users just to change the name?)

* Grokr has announced the launch of a beta program “in the coming weeks.”

Why This Is So Important

Within a few years, the virtual assistant will become the primary user interface for all mobile computers. We’ll just learn to talk to our phones and ask for things. And our phones will interrupt us to tell us what’s going on and suggest things.

A Grokr acquisition would accelerate Apple’s development of this capability just like buying Siri put them into the game in the first place.

I think there’s a good chance that Apple will announce the acquisition of Grokr in the coming weeks. And if they don’t, they’re likely to reveal another strategy for matching or exceeding Google Now in the future.

We’re leaving behind an era where products are central to mobile computing and entering one in which services rule. And intelligent virtual assistant service is the most important one of all.