Archive for the ‘General’ Category

No 118 service number(s) in Belgium

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Three weeks ago, the Belgian telecom regulator BIPT/IBPT published a Council Decision (in Dutch and French) on the (non-)introduction of the access code 118 for voice directory inquiry services in Belgium. After an extensive consultation of 13 market players (including the well-known fixed and mobile phone and/or cable operators, some international telecom carriers, a few not-so-new contenders but also a worker’s union and a consumer organization), the regulator decided to change … nothing about the current 4-digit scheme based on 12XX, 13XX and 14XX. Prominent examples in this numbering scheme are Belgacom-operated 1207, 1307 and 1234, as well as the more recent 1212 and 1313 operated by E.D.A. According to La Libre Belgique, both companies pleaded for the status quo, by the way.

The Belgian regulator was asked to rule on this matter by an anonymous new contender, who is not yet active on the Belgian market. The regulator’s role is to promote competition, contribute to the development of the internal market, but also to defend end-user intrests. Its decision to not adopt the 118 numbering scheme in Belgium goes against the CEPT/ECTRA Recommendation 97(01) on Numbering Access to Voice Directory Enquiry Services (PDF, Word). This non-mandatory recommendation has been implemented in 12 EU member states including all of Belgium’s neighboring countries, albeit in different forms (118, 118X, 118XX or 118XXX).

It looks like the goal of pan-European harmonization in Directory Assistance and related service numbers has not been and will not be met. If that was ever really desirable, given the simple fact of Europe’s language diversity. In Europe, cultural products don’t harmonize well – and that’s what phone applications basically are, when you think of it.

Voxeo and MAP Telecom offer VoiceXML & CCXML hosting services in EMEA through strategic partnership

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Orlando, FL. based Voxeo and Monaco based MAP Telecom have announced a strategic partnership whereby “Voxeo will provide the IVR infrastructure for MAP Telecom’s current facilities in Europe and four planned facilities in the Middle East”.

Current customers would be given “the choice to move from MAP Telecom’s legacy platform” (Voxbuilder from Voxpilot), and migrate to “a new and expanded multi-language developer community portal based on the Voxeo Evolution site” (more particularly maptelecom.voxeo.com).

It is not the first time that a US-based VoiceXML hosting company tries to set foot in mainland Europe. In May 2001, Tellme Networks acquired merged with Brussels-based MagicPhone, but the unconsumated marriage ended in poverty and dispute 15 months later.

From the point of view of Voxeo, a strategic partnership with a pan-European player makes sense in various ways. First, the financial risks linked to the setup of new platforms are shared. Second, MAP Telecom’s local knowledge in number provisioning on a pan-European scale (and beyond) offers Voxeo hassle-free access to a market of hundreds of millions of callers. Third, the respective companies’ core competencies are clearly complementary.

MAP Telecom, on the other hand, will benefit from Voxeo’s excellent reputation in system reliability and uptime.

Here’s a number of questions I’d like to see answered:
1) Why should MAP Telecom customers or development partners really care about which VoiceXML browser they’re using? Haven’t these become commodities, just like MS IE or Apache in the web browser world?
2) Will Voxeo’s excellent customer service be replicated in EMEA? If so, to what extent will the service be localized to a multilingual audience? Which party will take care of this, Voxeo or MAP Telecom?
3) Will MAP Telecom and its ecosystem of development partners commercially benefit from Voxeo’s customer base as far as global accounts are concerned? In other words, does the partnership offer any commercial synergy?
4) Will the addition of an alternative platform bring about lower prices, and hence market acceleration?
5) Will MAP Telecom’s legacy Voxpilot platform be maintained forever, or phased out?
6) How will the partnership succeed in convincing conservative European call center managers to adopt the hosted or managed services model for more than just the speech interface?

Irrespective of the answers to these questions, Voxeo’s crossing the Atlantic is a clear vote of confidence in the future of the European speech technology market. Finally, it will also be interesting to see if the partnership can be a boon the Skype Voice Services program, in which both MAP Telecom and Voxeo play a role.

Nuance sues Tellme over alleged patent infringement

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Long-time Nuance customer Tellme Networks from Mountain View, CA has been sued by Nuance and its wholly-owned subsidiary Phonetic Systems over an alleged patent infringement (1, 2). Bad news for Tellme’s employees and their other stock (option) holders, craving for the long-awaited but as yet unmaterialized IPO. The timing of the lawsuit filing may further indicate Nuance’s self-confidence in a market that has apparently become mature enough to allow for zero-sum games of this kind. Or will the lawyers be the only winners, as so often is the case?

For Scansoft, say Nuance

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

As previously announced, ScanSoft has changed its name to Nuance Communications, Inc. The name change is in effect as of today.

Ebay, PayPal, Skype, Tellme, Voxeo & MAP Telecom: the hidden link

Monday, September 12th, 2005

A busy week it has been: last Thursday, Skype announced its Voice Services program with Tellme, Voxeo and MAP Telecom; and today the rumours of Ebay/PayPal purchasing Skype (for $2.6 billion) turn out to be true.

Amid the mostly negative comments (e.g. on SlashDot) about the 10-year old Internet giant swallowing the SIP-no-thanks Internet Phone company, one strategic analysis stands out: according to donnacha, the Skype takeover is not primarily intended to create synergy with Ebay as we know it, but with PayPal. The goal would be to create:

an entirely new market of homebrew premium phone services, allowing anyone, anywhere to sell their time/expertise on a per minute basis

With PayPal moving more credibly towards micropayments, as donnacha argues, Ebay might indeed extend its platform to sell on-the-fly expertise. It won’t be long then, before we get Skype-branded “knowledge or expertise categories” appearing next to the antiques, dolls and bears.

What about Tellme, Voxeo and MAP Telecom then? Via the Voice Services program, you and me will be able to offer our own VoiceXML applications to the world. And if we’re successful, we’ll even get paid for it, on our PayPal account. As spkydog pointed out, this may indeed be the beginning of the long-announced Voice Web.

The long and winding road to mainstream adoption: Gartner’s 2005 Hype Cycle Report

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Broad coverage today [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] on Gartner’s recently released Hype Cycle Report for Emerging Technologies. Name of the game: stuff as many buzzwords as possible (RSS, SOA, P2P VoIP, LBS, RFID, …) on a timeline from now into the future, and actually make some sense out of it.

Dilip Thomas’ article includes an image of the Hype Cycle. It displays both “Speech Technology for Telephony and Call Center” and “TTS/Speech Synthesis” well into the so-called Plateau of Productivity, where the real-world benefits have become clear. Jackie Fenn, creator of the first Emerging Technology Hype Cycle in 1995, mentions speech technology as one example of a technology which has taken its time to “struggle into mainstream adoption”.

For the past 10 years, the speech technology road has indeed been long and winding, and sometimes bumpy. Having worked myself at two now defunct speech companies (first L&H, then MagicPhone [acquired and 15 months later dumped by Tellme Networks]), I’ve experienced kind of a free ride on the Hype Cycle rollercoaster myself. Great fun, but sometimes bad for the stomach.

But one good thing about the past is that it’s behind us. As Gartner’s report testifies once more, speech technology is there to stay, especially in the contact centre environment.

Article in Flemish newspaper De Tijd (July 25) on speech technology

Monday, July 25th, 2005

The “Wetenschap & Technologie” section of today’s newspaper De Tijd features an article by William Visterin entitled “Spraaktechnologie, vijf jaar na de val” (= “Speech technology, five years after the fall [of L&H]“). I have had the pleasure of contributing to this article as one of the two interviewees. The other one is Marc Moens, founder of text-to-speech technology provider Rhetorical Systems (now a part of Scansoft).

As far as I know, the article has not been published online for non-subscribers. Here’s my own summary:

1) Dictation software remains a niche product, used e.g. for automation in the medical and legal domain. In the consumer market, there is less interest: unless a PC user has a compelling reason like a physical disability, competition from mouse, keyboard [and screen] remains too strong for mass adoption of speech technology as an interface to a PC.

2) Embedded speech technology (in mobile devices or in-car navigation systems) is mentioned, but without any further elaboration.

3) On the advancement of the basic technology over the past five years, increased availability of processing power has allowed for the retrieval of sound segments from larger and more refined databases, resulting in higher-quality text-to-speech systems. In speech recognition, processing power has contributed to better accuracy. In multilingual markets like Belgium, the availability of simultaneous multilingual speech recognition engines is an important breakthrough.

4) Half of the article is about the lucrative application of speech technology for automating routine tasks in a call center environment. The author mentions the tribulations of Belgacom’s virtual operator Lisa (”1234″), and the lesson that the speech technology field has drawn from this and other live phone applications: the increased focus on dialog design, human factors, man-machine interaction, in short, on usability. Achieving user-friendly systems does not only require better development tools – available on the market now – but also specialised knowledge, which is in shorter supply.

5) On the acceptance of speech technology in the phone network, the author quotes Marc Moens, who states that “Ten years ago, many people disliked automated answering machines. Today, we all speak in our messages in each other’s voice mail”.

All in all, the article gives a succinct but objective overview of the state of speech technology and its applications in Belgium anno 2005. No more hype, but no gloomy messages either, just reality. That in itself is a big step in the right direction.

ZDNet/SmartBiz article: “More Applications of Speech Technology in [Belgian] Companies”

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Read the full article by William Visterin (in Dutch).

I generally agree with this article. The economic advantages of automating routine call center tasks are obvious; the real question is whether users will have to pay the price in terms of service level. My answer to that question is that there is enough expertise on the local market to 1) pick the right automatable applications; 2) automate them well; and 3) have both contact centers and callers win in this game.

Don’t forget: the user experience doesn’t start when the customer service representative picks up the phone; it starts with the dial tone, and goes on (very … slowly) with the “hold on” messages and Mozart tunes. If speech technology can eliminate years and years of accumulated waiting time, why hesitate? Life is too short to be spent in waiting queues.

Scansoft and Nuance to merge

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Read the press release on Scansoft’s website.

Self-service in European contact centers gains importance, says Genesys Telecommunication Labs study

Monday, February 21st, 2005

According to a European research study by Genesys Telecommunication Labs quoted by NewtelEssence, the importance of self-service in contact centers is more and more being recognised. 56% of all contact center managers taking part in the survey consider self-service as a priority, while 68% intends to invest considerably in the technology. As for business drivers, cost reduction is mentioned more frequently (65%) than increased customer satisfaction (38%).

NewtelEssence, a Dutch company specialised in Customer Contact Management, has a more extensive summary on its website (in Dutch).