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What the SwiftKey deal with Microsoft means for personal computing

Cristiano Troffei, Founder and CEO Quadro | February 10th, 2016

Microsoft’s acquisition of AI company SwiftKey has surely been the most rumoured deal of the past week, not just due to its financial order of magnitude, but for what this step might mean for the tech giant.

SwiftKey launched in 2010, bringing predictive technology into the realm of typing. Predictive technology uses machine learning to analyse the user’s word choice in order to proactively suggest the words the user is likely to choose in a text. The algorithm has been refined through time and now it can read from several sources (email, post and tweets) in order to give better word forecast. The latest and most important step, apparently envisioned from SwiftKey‘s early days, has been to increase its Natural Language Processing capabilities thanks to a massive neural network (just think that SwiftKey is installed on >300m devices).

This last detail is for sure what attracted Microsoft, that – despite not being new to AI technology, as many have reported (see Project Oxford) – had not properly invested in AI companies yet. This industry has not just seduced Microsoft, but many other big players, such as, for instance, Google.

In fact, the Mountain View company has already made the first steps acquiring other British startups – Vision Factory, Dark Blue Labs, and DeepMind Technologiesfor a whopping $400m investment. Apple, as well, has made some steps in this direction, strategically acquiring Emotient and VocalIQ.

Investing in AI today is just a natural step, rather than a foreseeable future. Neural networks produce computing capabilities that no common programming is able to match, and they are already applied in more systems than we would expect.

According to Google engineer Jeff Dean, “The company’s neural networking systems are driving dozens of its online services across the company, from Google+ to Google Now to Street View.” So, beside the product and projects of the UK-based company, Microsoft’s interest in the deal may have spurred from the need of acquiring a precious AI talent pool, which can enhance its capacity for proactive computing innovation, which is an extremely important feature of any upcoming (and current) operating system.

SwiftKey‘s technologies will be integrated into Microsoft’s own Word Flow, as confirmed by EVP Harry Shum, and has at least the potential to increase Cortana’s NLP capabilities. Since the application has not been removed from Apple and Google stores, SwiftKey could also be used as Trojan horse to bring Cortana to iOs and Android devices, although Word Flow itself is about to be available to iOs devices (though it doesn’t have SwiftKey’s user base).

What is up for discussion is whether Microsoft will make good use of this technology: if not, history will repeat itself all over again, transforming another Sunrise into a sunset (pun intended). And let me say that doubts run freely when reading this statement by Harry Shum: “In this cloud-first, mobile-first world, SwiftKey’s technology aligns with our 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.

This comment is probably more filled with buzzwords than content. However, people like me who work within the industry think this acquisition has all the potential to be an extremely significant operation and therefore we intend to follow its upcoming developments very closely.