Ten years ago, on June 29, 2007, the first iPhone was released to the public.
“iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,” said Steve Jobs, then the CEO of Apple, in a statement announcing the new device. “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device — our fingers — and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”
Jobs and by extension Apple has always looked to make technology more human, more intuitively user friendly for even those who are not technophiles.
And so, four years after the first iPhone launched, Apple announced the integration of Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant. With Siri, millions of ordinary consumers could use conversational speech to talk to their phones — to give commands or ask questions. Voice-activated technology existed before Siri, but previous versions were awkward and not used at scale.
So how did Siri come to be? It started long before there was an iPhone. It was the brainchild of a small start-up and was in production for decades. Jobs chased the inventors of the technology to get them to sell to Apple.
The father of Siri
When Adam Cheyer started working with computers in the early ’90s, he instinctively knew that the future would involve people interacting with the machines in a more natural way, through some combination of speech and graphic interfaces.
That’s why in 1993 Cheyer, who was then working at the SRI International research lab, built the first prototype of what would one day become Siri.
Over two decades, Cheyer built 50 versions of his Siri technology. But it wasn’t until the iPhone was released that his team saw an imminent opportunity for others to use it in a way that would make them money.
Cheyer, with co-founders Dag Kittlaus and Tom Gruber, spent the next couple of years building a commercial version of Siri, and in February 2010, the company he co-founded, Siri Inc., launched Siri as an app in the Apple store, alongside hundreds of thousands of other apps.
Two weeks later, Jobs called their office — unannounced.
The call from Steve Jobs
“We had no idea. I mean literally he called our CEO’s phone,” says Cheyer, referring to then CEO Kittlaus.
Jobs said, “Hey, it’s Steve, come over to my house tomorrow. What’cha doing?” according to Cheyer.
In that first meeting, Jobs made it clear that he wanted to buy Siri, but the co-founders declined. “With no hesitation, we said we were flattered but that we weren’t looking to sell at that time,” says Cheyer.
“We had just raised a new round of funding and had gone through a successful launch. We also had large distribution plans ahead, so an acquisition was just not something we were actively seeking or thinking about at the time.”
A few months later, in April 2010, the Siri team changed its mind and did sell to Apple for a reported $200 million.
“Over multiple discussions, Steve later convinced us that he understood our vision, that he wouldn’t just make Siri a tiny feature but something core to Apple’s strategy across multiple devices, and that we could impact the world more as part of Apple than as an independent company,” says Cheyer.
Siri launched on the iPhone on Oct. 4, 2011. Jobs died the next day.
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