November 11, 2011, 2:00 PM

What does Amazon want with a voice recognition company?

To compete with Apple? To enhance its apps? The e-retailer is not talking.

Lead Photo Inc. has been playing in the hardware and mobile commerce worlds for years, always innovating and in many cases staying one step ahead of the competition. But a recent acquisition hints that the e-retailer may be trying to catch up with others in the field of voice recognition technology.

In September Amazon quietly bought Yap Inc., according to an SEC filing that was traced back to Amazon by CLT Blog, a local news source in Charlotte, NC, Yap’s hometown. Yap built an application that enables a consumer to speak into a smartphone and have her voice turned into text; the technology also transcribes voice mails into text. But Yap has ceased operating its systems; its web site is now one page that tells users how to turn Yap off.

The big question is: What does want with a voice recognition company? Both Amazon and Yap did not reply to requests for comment.

Two potential strategies in mobile surface to the top: to enhance its Kindle e-reader and tablet hardware to be more competitive with Apple Inc., which now boasts its Siri voice recognition system; or to boost its mobile apps to enable voice entry of search terms, which some competitors, such as Inc., already offer.

“The acquisition is around adding voice navigation and transcription capabilities to its Kindle product line,” says Dan Shust, executive director of the innovation laboratory at research and consulting firm Resource Interactive. Shust follows emerging technologies. “It would be great for adding notations to what you are reading, controlling page turns, and so on. In the future, I could see the Kindle Fire tablet integrating with televisions, and it might be nice to have voice capabilities for navigation.”

However, the voice recognition market is nascent, and its future is unclear, Shust hastens to add.

“Time will tell if we really want to navigate and interact this way with our technology,” he says. “Siri is interesting, but certainly not fully realized yet. Google’s voice search has even been integrated into its desktop Chrome browser but represents only a small fraction of their search queries. I think Amazon has to explore and experiment.”

One big hurdle to adding voice recognition to its Kindle hardware is that none of the devices in the Kindle line, including the much-anticipated Kindle Fire tablet, have a microphone. This could be remedied in future versions of Kindle. This is not an obstacle if Amazon were to add voice recognition to its mobile apps as such set-ups use the microphone within a smartphone.

Another Amazon strategy could be adding transcription to its wide array of web services. After all, that’s what Yap is, a transcription technology. And it’s that fact that leads some experts to conclude that the Yap acquisition is not a direct response to Apple’s Siri or other retailers’ mobile app voice interfaces.

“Apple’s Siri is a combination of technologies tightly integrated into Apple software—it’s not just voice recognition for transcription, it’s also fairly advanced artificial intelligence that understands the meaning and context of voice commands,” says Avi Greengart, research director, consumer devices, at Current Analysis Inc. “It’s possible the acquisition has nothing to do with mobile devices. Google and Microsoft offer transcription services. Amazon offers document storage, so perhaps Yap will be a way to create documents. Yap could be part of a large project where Amazon is assembling some of the same elements as Siri, or it could be something else entirely.”

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