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Microsoft Acquires SwiftKey to Advance AI Goals

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 4, 2016 10:14 AM PT

Microsoft on Wednesday announced an agreement to acquire SwiftKey, whose software keyboard and SDK are used on more than 300 million Android and iOS devices.

Microsoft Acquires SwiftKey to Advance AI Goals

SwiftKey's technology aligns with Microsoft's vision for more personal computing experiences that "anticipate our needs versus responding to our commands, and directly supports our ambition to reinvent productivity by leveraging the intelligent cloud," said Harry Shum, Microsoft's executive VP of technology and research.

Users have saved an estimated 10 trillion keystrokes across 100 languages since the app was launched in 2010, SwiftKey said.

Microsoft will continue to develop SwiftKey's keyboard apps for iOS and Android and "explore scenarios for the integration of the core technology across the breadth of our product and services portfolio," Shum said.

SwiftKey's predictive technology aligns with Microsoft's interest in developing intelligent systems that can work more on users' behalf and under their control, he added.

That likely means artificial intelligence systems.

Microsoft is shelling out $250 million, according to the Financial Times.

It will fold SwiftKey's employees into its stable, and they apparently will report to Shum.

AI Efforts at Microsoft

"AI will initially be applied as a way to increase productivity through more effective predictive behavior," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"You could see this enhancing Outlook, Word and potentially even some of Microsoft's developer-focused products as well," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Several groups at Microsoft Research work on machine learning and AI. They include the Artificial Intelligence Group, the Deep Learning Technology Center, the Machine Learning and Intelligence Group and the Machine Teaching Group.

Projects include DeepCU, Dual Embedding Space Model, Video and Language, and SemanticPaint.

The company also has a set of AI tools in Project Oxford, which it updated with new APIs in November, including an Emotion API, which uses machine learning to recognize eight emotional states, such as anger, fear, happiness and surprise.

Last month, Microsoft open sourced its Computational Network Toolkit on GitHub.

One Approach to Rule Them All

SwiftKey's apps, which include a technology that makes it easier for theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to write and talk, should fit right into Microsoft's AI work.

The apps likely will continue to be available on iOS and Android for free, though the features and licensing terms might change over time, suggested Wes Miller, a senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"The technology will likely be melded into Microsoft's own Word Flow offering over time and ... will surely appear in some form across Microsoft's own platforms," he told the E-Commerce Times.

It also aligns well with Cortana "in terms of providing services to users and learning about those users over time to both provide better services and increase engagement," Miller added.

Eventually, SwiftKey's technology is likely to be used to increase the utility of Microsoft's Surface products and future versions of Windows on all hardware, Enderle suggested.

Resuscitating the Windows Phone?

Microsoft's foray into the smartphone arena has limped along -- the Windows Phone even doesn't get a mention in IDC's Q4 2015 worldwide smartphone sales figures.

That doesn't mean it's dead, however. Microsoft might work with Intel processors for its new smartphones, Seeking Alpha suggested.

In a 2014 memo to Microsoft employees, CEO Satya Nadella laid out a mobile-first and cloud-first vision, and he wants the company to be a player in this world, creating more natural human-computing interfaces that empower everyone.

Issues in the Future

What the SwiftKey products become over time, and how they will be made available, remains an open question, Directions on Microsoft's Miller said. "This isn't clearly a downside yet, but is an unknown."

There might also be a backlash from Android and iOS device users against the SwiftKey acquisition.

"The main downside is likely for users who ... try to live outside of Microsoft's sphere and are already SwiftKey users, as that won't be possible in the long term," he observed.

Microsoft "doesn't have the best record with regard to preserving acquired value," speculated Enderle, "and by SwiftKey's being part of Microsoft, iOS and Android users may move against it."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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