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Nuance to buy Vlingo, its rival in speech recognition

Nuance Communications Inc. said yesterday it will buy Vlingo Corp., ending a yearslong, bitter rivalry between the two local speech recognition software companies. Terms of the sale, including the price, were not disclosed.

“Competition can get fierce, and that was the case between Nuance and Vlingo,’’ said Dave Grannan, chief executive of Vlingo. “Now that the war is behind us, we are committed to building things together.’’

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Nuance, a publicly held company based in Burlington, has 6,000 employees worldwide and a reputation for tough tactics against competitors. It has ended a number of its competitive battles by acquiring rivals; in fact, Nuance has bought approximately 50 companies since it was established in 1992 as Visioneer Inc., a company that sold scanner hardware and software.

The feud between Nuance and Vlingo has been marked by years of contentious legal wrangling. Yesterday’s deal comes just four months after Vlingo, a Cambridge start-up with about $30 million in funding and 100 employees, won a patent dispute with Nuance in US District Court in Boston.

And in a lawsuit filed in September, Vlingo charged Nuance with unfair business practices. Among the charges: that Nuance offered Vlingo executives $5 million if they persuaded its board to agree to an earlier purchase offer.

Growing demand for speech recognition technology - particularly with the well-publicized debut of Siri, the voice-controlled assistant on Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 4S - may have brought the two adversaries together. Siri’s voice recognition abilities are powered by software from Nuance, already a major player in speech technology.

Vlingo is an attractive acquisition for the expertise of its staff, particularly in software that can hear and understand natural, spoken language. It makes a virtual assistant app for smartphones that has been downloaded by 13 million users.

Steve Chambers, president of sales and marketing for Nuance, said that despite their rocky past, the two companies together can better take on bigger national competitors like Google Inc., maker of the Android operating system for smartphones. “This market’s potential has created such a demand for our technology at Nuance that we do need and want to augment our talent ranks,’’ Chambers said, adding that the acquisition “feels like second cousins coming together at a reunion, not as much as the Hatfields and McCoys.’’

Izhar Armony, a venture investor with Charles River Ventures and Vlingo board member, said the voice recognition technology field has become so significant, “it is no longer viable for a small start-up to compete on a stand-alone basis.’’

How well will these two companies integrate? “How do you make peace with your archenemy?’’ Armony said. “We’ll have to see.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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