Nuance, Narrative Science and Qualcomm
When it comes to tech, it’s all about GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – and perhaps Microsoft, too. Chuck-in a plethora of startups that either wither away or get bought out by one of the above, and you’ve got the tech industry in a nutshell, right?
Actually, no. The big boys might get all of the attention, but the tech landscape is far more varied, with some huge companies at the core of some of the gadgets and web services we use every day – and they’re firms that many people have never heard of.
Nuance Communications: a speech-driven future
This Massachusetts-based US company is all about voice recognition and natural language processing, and there’s a good chance you use its products every day. Nuance tech powers Apple’s Siri as well as its own speech-to-text products, and it also owns Swype, the virtual keyboard app for smartphones and tablets.
Probably its most famous other product is Dragon NaturallySpeaking/Dictate, software that lets users ditch a keyboard and speak to a computer when word processing. Its Nuance Cloud Services is licensed to myriad manufacturers that want to interact with users via voice, such as the Omate Smartwatch and smart TVs from Samsung. Nuance is hoping that the voice recognition revolution soon spreads to toasters, thermostats, light switches and cars.
However, Siri will soon run on Apple’s own voice recognition system, so Nuance will effectively be competing with both Apple and Google in the voice recognition industry. Cue its recent interest in call centres and hospitals with both its call routing and Dragon Medical transcriptions software, and cloud-based medical speech recognition technology. Nuance’s work on voice biometrics could mean a new swathe of gadgets that not only recognise words, but who’s speaking them.
Expect Nuance to come up with myriad voice-enabled apps as well as next-gen conversation tech that will banish remote controls or learned speech commands and bring natural speech and conversation to all kinds of electronics.
Narrative Science: making a big deal of big data
We hear about big data all the time, but there’s a problem; there’s just too much of it. Natural language generation of this data is the game of this Chicago-based company, and it could help address the huge thirst for big data-led content.
Its leading product is an artificial intelligence platform called Quill, automated writing software that takes structured data and almost instantly translates it into readable English news stories. We’re not talking about the incisive columns or the entertaining prose found on TechRadar Pro, of course, but instead analysis in areas that no-one’s writing about. In short, it’s for the financial industry.
This state of the art analytics engine extracts insight, describes situations, predicts outcomes, and generates prescriptions based on core data, but Narrative Science isn’t about replacing humans. Instead it’s more about making machines do the boring, difficult stuff with data and coming up with easy-to-explain answers based on trends it spots. It is, in short, about making big data a big deal.
Qualcomm: the ‘systems on a chip’ company
The San Diego-based mobile chipmaker – the world’s biggest – is at the heart of the digital communications and smartphone revolution, but aside from the odd name check on the spec sheets of handsets, Qualcomm barely gets a mention.
Qualcomm is basically a group of inventors that has come up with – and licensed, with lucrative results – much of the technology used by Samsung, Sony, LG and others in their gadgets. Qualcomm’s key product is Snapdragon, a family of mobile systems on a chip that are found in most Android smartphones and tablets.
However, this company has got its finger in myriad tech pies, most notably the Internet of Everything and ‘automotive infotainment’. Cue its $2.5 billion (around £1.6 billion, AU$2.9 billion) purchase in October of CSR, a Cambridge (UK) based tech leader in Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart and audio processing. As well as bolstering its open source device-to-device communications system, AllJoyn, the acquisition of CSR complements its purchase of wireless HDMI connectors company Wilocity earlier this year.
Qualcomm is also experimenting with wearables (the Qualcomm Toq), multi-room music (Qualcomm AllPlay), mobile TV (Qualcomm LTE Broadcast) and wireless electric vehicle charging (Qualcomm Halo).
Xiaomi, Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco
Xiaomi: the ‘Apple of China’
Chinese phone maker Xiaomi (pronounced ‘sh-how-me’) will sell around 60 million phones this year and 100 million in 2015, but why the fuss? Founded in China in 2010, its near-doubling of business is down to Xiaomi’s growth out of China and into six other countries in Asia, but there’s much more to come with the Beijing-based company’s plans for international expansion on the horizon.
The success in China of Xiaomi’s sleek flagship Mi-3 phone (among others) has led to comparisons with Apple, though at Xiaomi it’s all about super-low prices, which range from just $150 (around £95, AU$170) to $300 (around £190, AU$340). All of its handsets run on the firm’s own MIUI rom user interface, with no need for Android or any other outside influence. The MIUI is an open platform of apps and games, and it helped Xiaomi sell more smartphones last year in China than Apple.
Xiaomi also makes smart TVs and set-top boxes, and could move into tablets soon, too. Next year Xiaomi will launch in India and Brazil, but not only to provide phones. It already runs a massive Apple iMessage-like MIUI Cloud Messaging service in China, but Xiaomi will get to both India and Brazil before the ubiquitous Amazon Web Services. Although for now it’s largely centred on the Chinese market, this is a company with huge ambitions, so watch this space.
Alcatel-Lucent: the plumbers of the internet
We’ve all heard about the origin of the internet, but there’s one company that can definitively claim a slice of history. In 1969 a computer system across two university campuses in California transmitted data from one to another, birthing the worldwide web – and that computer system was developed by Bell Labs, a research institution now owned by Alcatel-Lucent.
Alcatel-Lucent’s work is everywhere – from broadband, Wi-Fi, IP and cloud networking to undersea fibre optics. It’s all stuff we take for granted, but it’s what makes the internet go round. Headquartered in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, but Chinese-owned, Alcatel-Lucent is focused on the connected world. The fibre optic cables it’s installed could wrap around the globe 12 times, with recent projects including custom-made undersea cable systems connecting offshore oil and gas rigs.
Hot on the heels of Alcatel-Lucent in this ‘internet backbone’ business is Chinese company Huawei and our final company, Cisco.
Cisco: the smart city future
Servers, routers and the nuts and bolts of networking might be its bread and butter, but San Jose-based Cisco is increasingly all about the smart city. It’s got the likes of IBM and Siemens to battle with, but it’s Cisco that’s making the most waves with its U.Life tech, a smart home system that uses smartphone apps and touchscreens to control heating, air-con and lighting.
The system is employed in the US$35 billion (around £22 billion, AU$40 billion) New Songdo City project near Seoul, South Korea, the 65,000-strong population will, by 2017, be enjoying TelePresence video call screens on street corners and in schools, offices and homes, while high-rise homes will also get mega-fast broadband provided by Cisco.
Just a few years ago New Songdo City was empty land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. With the high-tech city deemed a success, Cisco now has its sights on being the digital mastermind behind another smart city project in South Korea.