Let’s take a step back to an ancient time before Google Assistant, Siri, or Alexa. A time when smart homes were an idea almost unheard of, and voice commands were (even more) awful. Back in 2007, the world saw the launch of Vlingo, and it almost became the voice assistant everyone would use today.
You might complain that voice assistants are terrible today, but that’s only because you either never worked with voice command programs before 2010, or your mind wiped the trauma from your memory. I have a Prius old enough to feature voice command technology from that era, and it’s literally the worst. You can only speak precise commands that are prescripted. If you mess up a word, it won’t understand you. Worse, you have to wait for a prompt every time before speaking. And every command requires a follow-up confirmation command followed by another submenu command. If you get anything wrong along the way, you have to start all over.
Trying to use voice commands to make a phone call in my old Prius can take five minutes to accomplish. And so I never use it. It’s a far cry from what we have today with Google Assistant, Alexa, and even Siri. But when Vlingo launched in 2007, it was already leaps and bounds ahead of anything on the market.
If you have even a fleeting knowledge of digital assistants, you might think that Apple started it all with Siri. But that’s not quite true, though you’re on the right track. Vlingo launched four years before Apple introduced Siri as an integrated component of the iPhone 4S. Before that, Siri itself launched as a standalone iOS app in early 2010 with plans to create an Android version down the road. But two months after the iOS release, Apple purchased the company that created Siri, putting an end to those plans. And though Siri relied on Nuance at launch for its speech-recognition engine, originally it used Vlingo during the development phase.
You might think Siri switched to Nuance because it had a better speech recognition system at the time, but that’s not necessarily the case. In an interview with 9to5Mac at the time, Siri’s co-founder said Nuance’s speech recognition tech was “less important than you think” and that the primary catalyst for the switch was Intellectual Property (IP)—that’s a factor that will come up later.
But years before Siri even launched its iOS app, Vlingo launched as a Java app for mobile phones. Why a Java app? Because we’re talking 2007, before the first Android phone and before Apple launched the App Store for iPhones. It may be hard to remember, but the first iPhone didn’t have an app store at all. And at the time, if you didn’t want an iPhone, the few smartphone alternatives that existed used Java apps to give them new features, and it was often on the user to go find them on a shareware site.
The original version of Vlingo acted a lot like the microphone button on your phone’s keyboard does now. If you wanted to send a text by voice, you launched Vlingo, spoke your command, and the app sent your words off to a cloud server, converted it to digital text, and then back to your phone. If that sounds familiar, that’s essentially how all digital assistants work now.
Even better, Vlingo learned. If it didn’t translate your voice to text properly, you could correct it, and those corrections went off to a machine-learning algorithm to help its accuracy in the future. It wasn’t long before Vlingo released an iOS and Android app that could search Google Maps or the web, send texts or emails, save reminders, make calls, and read your texts aloud to you.
Vlingo even had a vehicle mode that created a car-friendly interface that made it safer to use while driving—like Android Auto or Carplay today. And that’s in addition to Blackberry, Symbian, and Windows Phone offerings. Even Engadget’s review of the iPhone 4S noted that Siri wasn’t doing anything “…unprecedented, apps like Vlingo do similar things elsewhere.”
Vlingo even partnered with Samsung to incorporate the technology into its fledgling voice assistant, S Voice, and Vlingo was a default app on Samsung devices for a while.
By the time Apple integrated Siri into iPhone, Vlingo had serious competition. Google eventually developed its take on the concept, which we now call Google Assistant. Microsoft created Cortana, even if that didn’t turn out as the company hoped. Nuance created Dragon (Go), and other smaller developers took a swing at voice assistants, too.
And where Vlingo once held an advantage in natural voice commands and user-provided corrections, the other options caught up quickly. Vlingo lost some of its notability and eventually became known as a “Siri alternative for Android.” That despite predating Siri and offering an iOS app.
But Vlingo had a vision for the future that seemed implausible at the time: a digital voice assistant on many devices that can accomplish everything from buying tickets to a concert to creating a grocery list. Check out this Vlingo video from 2012 demonstrating its goals for the future:
Vlingo envisioned a future with its digital assistant app on phones, tablets, and even smart TVs. Now keep in mind that this is 2012 when smart TVs aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as now. You paid extra for a smart TV back then instead of buying one because it’s the only choice.
And yeah, the video is cringey, but consider the concepts on demonstration in it. Vlingo is shown changing channels, offering up recent news, providing car gas tank statuses, moving appointments, helping book flights, finding directions, and more. We can do a lot of that now with Alexa or Google Assistant, but even all these years later, some of those features don’t exist, and none of it works so smoothly.
Vlingo doesn’t technically predict the smart home here and doesn’t show light or plug control. But that’s not too surprising. Ubiquitous smart home gadgets were nearly a decade away at the time, and even Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo speaker didn’t feature smart home capability when it launched in 2014. It’s not hard to imagine that as smart lights and other smart devices became common, Vlingo would have added controlling them to its capabilities. After all, it was well ahead of all the competition in what it could do and what it hoped to do.
You’re probably asking “if Vlingo was so much better than all of the competition, why aren’t we using it today?” Sometimes being the best doesn’t guarantee survival. In some cases, it only hastens death. Nuance took notice of Vlingo early on and decided it wanted to get rid of the competition. Do you remember that bit earlier about Nuance having more IP on hand than Vlingo? This is where that information comes into play.
Nuance decided the easiest way to remove Vlingo from the playing field was to buy it. But when it offered a low number, the founders of Vlingo said no. So Nuance tried a different tact—it sued Vlingo for patent infringement. The purpose wasn’t to win for the sake of patents, mind you. The goal was to devalue Vlingo and make it weaker.
Vlingo countered with its own patent lawsuits, and the long journey of court wrangling began. After three years, Vlingo won the first trial, and the judge ruled Vlingo didn’t infringe any of Nuance’s claimed 30 patents. Keep in mind that all of this happened simultaneously with the rest of this story; the first trial decision occurred in 2011, around Siri’s launch with iPhone 4S. And Nuance powered Siri.
Nuance may have lost the battle, but it likely did manage to slow Vlingo down long enough for others to catch up. After losing the trial, Nuance went back to Vlingo with a new purchase offer at a higher price, and Vlingo accepted. All the promises for a Vlingo-powered future died there. Nuance didn’t continue the program, and it even shut down Dragon (Go), its digital assistant. These days the closest you’ll get is Dragon Anywhere, which serves more as a speech-to-text app, not a full digital assistant.
And it’s a pity, too. If not for purely business decisions, we could have had Alexa-like controls in the home years sooner. And better yet, without close ties to Amazon (or Google in the case of Google Assistant). It’s not hard to imagine that the death of Vlingo set back voice-controlled smart homes by years. And ultimately gave us the walled garden smart homes we live in. We got there eventually, but the future isn’t as bright as it might have been.