One way to look at a company’s innovation efforts is by looking at its intellectual property. If a firm is frequently filing for patents in a given field of research, it’s a good bet the company wants to make that field part of its business and technology strategy.
In the case of Google and Apple, you would expect to see filings in patent categories related to computing and communications—and you would be correct. But recently, a top focus for the companies’ patent efforts has been a field that the U.S. Patent Office calls “Musical Instruments; Acoustics.”
A review of Google’s patent applications over the past year shows the search giant filed 189 applications in the acoustics field—more than it did in any other. Apple, meanwhile, filed for 76 such applications. This was the iPhone maker’s second busiest patent category after a field called “Education Cryptography Display Advertising.”
In the case of the “Musical Instruments; Acoustics” applications, the companies aren’t really going into the violin or guitar business. Instead, the patent applications cover a wide range of proposed inventions related to things like voice recognition, speakers, and automated speech.
This trend reflects how tech companies are betting on a variety of tools related to speech and language, such as voice-controlled devices (like Google Home or Siri or Amazon’s Echo) and artificial intelligence, to build future products.
Of course, in the bigger picture, intellectual property is not always the same thing as innovation. The fact a company obtains patents may simply reflect the fact it has lawyers who are good at drafting patent applications, and not that the company is inventing stuff. Nonetheless, it’s often the case that patents and trademark can be a proxy for research progress. (IBM obtained the most in 2015).