Speak to me

Microsoft’s recent acquisition of TellMe Networks could represent huge opportunities for the channel, say industry experts, but only for those quick enough to reap the potential rewards.
As well, say channel vendors, success will depend on a reduction in the cost of speech recognition applications to the point it’s affordable to small and mid-sized businesses.

TellMe, a Mountain View, Calif.-based provider of voice services, answers millions of calls every day for information such as finding local businesses, driving directions, sports scores, stock quotes, weather, news and movie show times.

Because TellMe provides a service element to Microsoft products, the acquisition further blurs the lines between services and communications, says SeaBoard Group analyst Kevin Restivo. “So the question becomes for partners how to fill in the gaps or complement what Microsoft is doing,” he says. “Ninety per cent of Microsoft sales are through partners, so I imagine it will flesh out as usual, but the slower-moving ones will get left behind. You can’t just be a reseller anymore, and that has been the case for years.”

According to statements from Microsoft – despite repeated requests for an interview no one was available to speak to CDN – the acquisition is a match made in heaven. Microsoft likes voice applications; Tellme provides them. Officially, Microsoft said in a statement, “This acquisition marks an important step forward in Microsoft’s strategy for delivering software plus services that put people at the centre of technology solutions in the office, home and on the go.”

TellMe’s robust speech applications platform opens the door for Microsoft’s legion of developers to “build innovative applications based on open standards and self-learning speech platform that continuously optimizes itself to enhance interaction quality,” the company said.

The move represents a huge opportunity for Microsoft, says Forrester analyst Elizabeth Herrell. According to Datamonitor, worldwide sales for speech technology are more than $5 billion. Herrell expects that will only continue to explode.

“I think the market for speech applications will continue to grow . . . but it’s not going to grow independently, it’s going to grow with the whole concept of unified applications and speech access to applications,” says Herrell.

Herrell foresees the integration of TellMe into Microsoft applications, resulting in users being able to use speech to access their computers as well as using cell phones.

“A good one would be you’re on the cell phone and you want to call your Outlook calendar to see your appointment in the afternoon,” she says. “You could say to a speechbot, ‘Change that appointment and send the recipient notification of the change.’ You’re going to interact more frequently with your voice, and with the huge growth in cell phones and mobile devices, we see there is a pretty good market out there.”

Kendall Lougheed, president of Ottawa-based MicroWorks, a gold-level Microsoft reseller, agrees.

“Nobody reads letters anymore, but we do e-mail and more and more the video part of MSN is becoming familiar,” he says. “That is all going to get nicely integrated into cellphones, so with video and voice we’re going to be more connected with the people with whom we do business – customers, suppliers and competitors – and all that will be voice-enabled. So it’s a huge opportunity and all these pieces are coming together and becoming easy to use quite quickly. We’re really an integration company; we make it all work together, so we’re going to have rich multimedia offering for the business environment.”

There is also a role for speech recognition in CRM applications, says Eric Rutten, vice-president of WolfBridge Solutions Corp., a Toronto-based Microsoft CRM provider.

“Many organizations have gone through a process over many years of having their back offices be very effective and efficient; they’ve done re-engineering and all kinds of different things to get to that point,” he says. “Organizations are now doing the same thing in the front office. Voice recognition is going to be a much more important component of those customer-facing interfaces.”

From a CRM standpoint, the integration of speech recognition into everyday applications will facilitate better tracking of all customer interactions, he says. “You could record the full communications stream between you and your customer…and it becomes a really rich data resource to mine and understand how the customer needs to interact.”

Rutten is not so sure his customers will be clamouring for speech recognition, though, because smaller companies are still loathe to hand their customers off to a robo-voice.

“Our organizations are in the mid-markets and most of these folks don’t have the kind of volumes that would drive them to look to that kind of solution,” he says. “That technology at this point has not been driven down to the mid-market in an affordable way, and frankly, I think most mid-market organizations are going to remain skeptical about how that technology may be able to help them.

“One of the things they’re very conscious of is making sure their interaction with their customer is as effective as possible and they’re very reluctant to download that to technology. There is definitely going to be a place for speech recognition, but it is going to be used judiciously.”

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