The big tech firms you may not have heard of

Six important lesser-known tech companies

When it comes to tech, it's all about GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – and perhaps Microsoft, too. Chuck-in a plethora of startups that either wither away or get bought out by one of the above, and you've got the tech industry in a nutshell, right?

Actually, no. The big boys might get all of the attention, but the tech landscape is far more varied, with some huge companies at the core of some of the gadgets and web services we use every day – and they're firms that many people have never heard of.

Nuance

Speech-to-text and Siri is the business of Nuance

Nuance Communications: a speech-driven future

This Massachusetts-based US company is all about voice recognition and natural language processing, and there's a good chance you use its products every day. Nuance tech powers Apple's Siri as well as its own speech-to-text products, and it also owns Swype, the virtual keyboard app for smartphones and tablets.

Probably its most famous other product is Dragon NaturallySpeaking/Dictate, software that lets users ditch a keyboard and speak to a computer when word processing. Its Nuance Cloud Services is licensed to myriad manufacturers that want to interact with users via voice, such as the Omate Smartwatch and smart TVs from Samsung. Nuance is hoping that the voice recognition revolution soon spreads to toasters, thermostats, light switches and cars.

However, Siri will soon run on Apple's own voice recognition system, so Nuance will effectively be competing with both Apple and Google in the voice recognition industry. Cue its recent interest in call centres and hospitals with both its call routing and Dragon Medical transcriptions software, and cloud-based medical speech recognition technology. Nuance's work on voice biometrics could mean a new swathe of gadgets that not only recognise words, but who's speaking them.

Expect Nuance to come up with myriad voice-enabled apps as well as next-gen conversation tech that will banish remote controls or learned speech commands and bring natural speech and conversation to all kinds of electronics.

Narrative Science

Narrative Science's Quill puts big data into words

Narrative Science: making a big deal of big data

We hear about big data all the time, but there's a problem; there's just too much of it. Natural language generation of this data is the game of this Chicago-based company, and it could help address the huge thirst for big data-led content.

Its leading product is an artificial intelligence platform called Quill, automated writing software that takes structured data and almost instantly translates it into readable English news stories. We're not talking about the incisive columns or the entertaining prose found on TechRadar Pro, of course, but instead analysis in areas that no-one's writing about. In short, it's for the financial industry.

This state of the art analytics engine extracts insight, describes situations, predicts outcomes, and generates prescriptions based on core data, but Narrative Science isn't about replacing humans. Instead it's more about making machines do the boring, difficult stuff with data and coming up with easy-to-explain answers based on trends it spots. It is, in short, about making big data a big deal.

Qualcomm

Qualcomm's tech is found in most smartphones and tablets

Qualcomm: the 'systems on a chip' company

The San Diego-based mobile chipmaker – the world's biggest – is at the heart of the digital communications and smartphone revolution, but aside from the odd name check on the spec sheets of handsets, Qualcomm barely gets a mention.

Qualcomm is basically a group of inventors that has come up with – and licensed, with lucrative results – much of the technology used by Samsung, Sony, LG and others in their gadgets. Qualcomm's key product is Snapdragon, a family of mobile systems on a chip that are found in most Android smartphones and tablets.

However, this company has got its finger in myriad tech pies, most notably the Internet of Everything and 'automotive infotainment'. Cue its $2.5 billion (around £1.6 billion, AU$2.9 billion) purchase in October of CSR, a Cambridge (UK) based tech leader in Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart and audio processing. As well as bolstering its open source device-to-device communications system, AllJoyn, the acquisition of CSR complements its purchase of wireless HDMI connectors company Wilocity earlier this year.

Qualcomm is also experimenting with wearables (the Qualcomm Toq), multi-room music (Qualcomm AllPlay), mobile TV (Qualcomm LTE Broadcast) and wireless electric vehicle charging (Qualcomm Halo).