Voxeo acquires VoiceObjects

December 9th, 2008

Two of my favourite companies in the speech-driven call automation field today announced their union. By acquiring VoiceObjects of Cologne, Germany, the American voice hosting company Voxeo further expands its presence in mainland Europe.

Voxeo of Orlando, Florida runs the world’s largest VoiceXML platform and is reputed for its extreme service. Three years ago I had the pleasure to work with them while developing the now defunct Beavis and Butthead hotline. I was just as impressed with the stability of their platform as with the professionalism and accessibility of their staff, up to and including CEO Jonathan Taylor.

In summer 2004, just after I started as an independent consultant in this business, VoiceObjects was so kind as to offer me a free voucher for their Consulting Partner Certification. Apart from this gesture, I also appreciated the flexibility and ease of use of their eponymous flagship product which greatly simplifies the development of multilingual speech applications.

Developers like me will surely welcome the announcement that “VoiceObjects will also be available in extremely cost-effective on-demand and on-premise offerings bundled with Voxeo’s own Prophecy VoiceXML Platform.”

Dutch-speaking language and speech technology sector looks in the mirror, and ahead

November 20th, 2008

About 175 professionals from the Dutch-speaking speech & language technology community gathered in Brussels yesterday for the second edition of Taal In Bedrijf (”Language At Work”). The main goals of the event were to present results from the government-sponsored STEVIN program, to poll for remaining needs in and around the field, and to reflect on the best way to address those needs in post-STEVIN times.

The morning sessions focused on practical applications of Dutch speech and language technology in diverse areas such as multimedia, games, written communication, E-government, E-health, E-learning, (semi-)automated translation, mobility, logistics, and business intelligence. Quite a few of the applications presented have been or are being developed under STEVIN’s demonstrator subprogram, which attracted one million euro, or 8.7% of the total 5-year STEVIN budget.

The breadth and versatility of speech and language technology makes that it is almost always combined with other technologies, as part of a broader solution. As a result, the speech & language technology field as a whole is somewhat diffuse and difficult to grasp to outsiders. During my presentation, I therefore pleaded in metaphorical terms for a “TST Inside” logo (TST = Taal- en SpraakTechnologie) to improve the visibility and accessibility of technological resources like parsers, recognizers, spoken and written corpora, grammars or ontologies. More practically speaking: if we want our companies and fellow citizens to know and use our beloved tools & techniques, this is the time for existing distribution agencies like the TST-Centrale to step up, enter the front-stage and play a more pro-active and visible role. This extension of duties may require an organizational upgrade from its current project status within the INL to an autonomous agency with clear strategies, budgets, targets, plus travelling sales people, lobbyists, and … its own website!

As for the Dutch and Flemish governments’ role, their classic function as subsidizer can be complemented as well. For a start, government departments and public companies (in the European sense) could take the lead themselves and apply speech and language technology in their own daily operations. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked in this area, especially in Flanders. Three examples, to name just those: De Lijn (public transport company), the Vlaamse Infolijn (general number for government inquiries), or VDAB (Flemish Work Agency).

Another recommendation for the Flemish speech & language field is to structurally organize ourselves, like our Dutch friends from NOTAS already started doing … seven years ago. My own positive experience with the Speech Technology Workgroup within ContactCentres.be -thank you, Peter Edel, for the presentation yesterday- has shown that self-organization is a necessary condition to create a sector in the minds of innovation managers and other decision makers. As any marketing student can tell: if our customers can’t mentally locate us, we don’t exist.

So let’s keep up the good work, and make some (more) noise. Oh yeah, and keep on improving our technologies. But that’s another discussion.

Impressions from VocalExpo 2008 in Paris, France

October 13th, 2008

Ten days ago the third edition of Philippe Poux‘ brainchild VocalExpo was held at the CNIT La Défense in Paris, France. VocalExpo brings together industry professionals and customers in the French (speaking) market active at the interface of speech technology and customer relationship management. Paris is only an 80 minute Thalys trip away from Brussels, so your servant was there.

The Centres des Nouvelles Industries et Technologies (CNIT) at La Défense in Paris, France

The name of the exposition hall was Darwin. Aptly chosen, as the history of speech technology is an evolutionary tale, with predator companies eating smaller species – see Nuance’s recent acquisition of Philips Speech Recognition Systems – and new technologies and applications seeing the light at an ever increasing pace. One basic technology that has acquired a prominent place today in many companies’ offerings is voice biometrics – more on this below. Another trend in the making is that the web browser will gain in importance as a natural interface for voice input, to the detriment of the plain phone. Atos Worldline demoed a browser-based virtual contact centre, written in Flex. The solution allows customers to contact a company’s helpdesk right from their web browser, providing a rich interaction which includes chat & voice, document sharing, and co-browsing. In the demo I tried, it was another person pushing the buttons on the other side of the link. But with an IVVR system at the back-end, the opportunities for multi-channel customer service are only bounded by imagination. The major blocking factors I see for large-scale adoption are customer inertia, lack of usability and lack of security, none of which are insurmountable.

The Arche de la Défense in Paris, France. Picture taken at VocalExpo 2008

Speaking of security and authentication, the most interesting part of the day was the panel discussion on voice biometrics featuring Alexander Huggins from Nuance, François Chaffard from Prosodie, who also represented Voice.Trust in this panel, and finally Ariane Nabeth-Halber, Technical Director NaturalVoice at Hotline. The adoption of voice biometrics in France is hampered somewhat by regulation from the French privacy authorities requiring a case-by-case authorization to use the technology, as well as the explicit agreement of company personnel representatives and the individual users. On the technical side, there were some critical remarks on the alleged immaturity and incompleteness of the MRCP v2 standard, which slows down technical integration of speaker verification engines in a VoiceXML application environment. This being said, the basic voice biometrics technology itself has been around for quite a number of years already and is certainly deemed mature enough for large-scale deployment. Ms. Nabeth-Halber was keen to stress that the balance between security and convenience is also a matter of good VUI design and adaptive dialogs: for example, callers authenticated through their voice and their phone number can pass right away, whereas grey-zone cases do get a second question to answer. The application context which defines the monetary cost of false acceptances versus false rejections is also of prime importance in setting the correct verification thresholds.

The Voice Biometrics Panel at VocalExpo 2008 in Paris, FranceÂ

Announcement: Taal In Bedrijf, Brussels, Nov. 19, 2008

August 31st, 2008

Under the auspices of the Taalunie (= [Dutch] Language Union), the Dutch-speaking speech & language industry from The Netherlands and Flanders will meet in Brussels on November 19, 2008 for the second edition of Taal In Bedrijf (best translated as “Language At Work”). The first, 2005 edition in Eindhoven attracted 290 professionals from academia and industry.

I have gladly accepted to moderate the afternoon plenary discussions on the continuation of a joint Dutch/Flemish Speech and Language Technology programme.

Announcement: Voice Days, Wiesbaden, Germany, Oct. 15-16, 2008

August 31st, 2008

See the Voice Days website, as well as my report from the 2007 edition. Note this year’s conference won’t be held in Bonn, but in Wiesbaden.

Announcement: Vocal Expo Paris, Oct. 2nd, 2008

August 31st, 2008

See the VocalExpo website.

Announcement: Voice Biometrics Conference London, Nov. 19-20, 2008

August 31st, 2008

See the Voice Biometrics website.

Announcement: Voice Biometrics Conference New York, May 14-15, 2008

April 18th, 2008

See the VoiceBioCon website.

eComm2008, day 3: calling with plants, and other innovative business models

March 15th, 2008

The third and last day of the Emerging Communications Conference in Mountain View, CA focused in on innovation.

IBM Think logos at Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA

Keynote speaker and Chief Analyst Martin Geddes from STL Partners had no trouble convincing the audience that the telco companies need to reinvent themselves as providers of data logistics services. By providing a frictionless platform in-between upstream organizational customers and downstream individual customers, the telcos can source new revenue streams, just like the logistics companies from the freight business have successfully done for decades.

eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA: telcos are sitting on massive amounts of latent data assets

In the Telco 2.0 world, two-sided business models will allow the carriers to exploit the massive amounts of valuable but latent data assets they already own. For example, the airline that brought me to Silicon Valley and back could have offered me a highly personalized 5-day data plan, if only the local telco company had made it dead easy for them to do so. All the information needed to organize the transaction already exists – it’s just waiting to be recombined and exploited.

Data portability is another precondition for a flourishing Telco 2.0 world. Mobile operators could take over from the Web 2.0 social networking sites in this area, as they know their customers better than anyone else thanks to the billing relationship. But it won’t work if management of contact lists, pictures, music files, ringtones and the like are mandatorily coupled with data access.

Nathan Eagle (MIT) turning constraints into innovation in Africa

Abundance of information may actually cloud our view on how to select and recombine the useful bits. A possible antidote and innovation strategy is to go back to basics. This is what Nathan Eagle from MIT is experiencing in his work as facilitator of developmental entrepreneurship in Nairobi, Kenia. The 5-year old phones that the local population are using basically allow them to call and to send text messages. These constraints are a bonus in that they force Nathan Eagle and his team of local students and entrepreneurs to be more innovative. As a result, new forms of communication spring up, like flashing, where consensual meaning is attached to the number of times a phone rings. The advantage: zero cost. Another application uses SMS to vastly improve the supply chain of a blood bank. What better motivation to innovate is there than the opportunity to save lives with 250 lines of code?

Hi, this is your plant calling - David Troy at eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA

Of course, not every innovation grows out of a pressing in-your-face user need. Some Silicon Valley innovators, e.g. Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar, have become entrepreneurs and even billionnaires by accident. At the outset, there needs to be a desire for experimentation and playfulness. This is mostly a matter of personal or organizational mindset and culture. Not just knowledge, but also – if not mostly- imagination.

Dave Troy is certainly a case in point. He’s the creator of the mashups twittervisionflickrvision, and spinvision. He also makes thirsty plants call up their negligent bosses, facilitates political campaigns and steers robot vacuum cleaners by phone. Not every innovation like this is monetizable, of course, but that’s OK. What enables this kind of emergent innovation is the availability of open networks, open content, open devices and open source code. And an open mind, I should add.

Brian Capouch preserving historic houses with technology - eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA

Personal drive and attitude indeed make a big difference. Brian Capouch, a computer science professor who lives in rural Indiana, applies Asterisk and other open source technology to preserve historical farmland houses from vandalism and destruction. He also runs a wireless farm network for his local community. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

Bridging the communication gap between Web and telco worlds

Shirish Andhare from Sylantro presented a human resources methodology to help bridge the culture gap between the Web 2.0 and the incumbent telco world. As said in yesterday’s post, the two worlds are doomed to collaborate in order to grow the pie. New multiplay service models need to see the daylight, with voice being only a component in a broader high-value solution. Elaborating on this last topic, Trevor Baca from Jaduka presented 10 usage contexts in which voice plays an important role. I mostly retain the following tags: urgency, emotion, place (to a minor extent: time), people, and, last but not least: enterprise. On a related note, Benoit Schillings from Trolltech stated that the best strategy to have users accept new features or concepts is to piggyback on what they already know and can relate to. In other words: innovative application features need to be positioned in the user’s mind.

It is an impossible task to summarize the learnings from 3 overstuffed days into a few lines. But let’s try anyhow:

  • Telco/Mobile 2.0 is not equal to squeezing Web 2.0 principles into the existing telco environment
  • It rather requires a radical rethink of existing technologies, organizational structures, work culture, service & product offerings, and, above all, business models
  • Innovation is an outside-in process; organizations need to open their windows and let the fresh air flow in. The answer is blowing in the wind
  • Technology is used by humans. Humans have social and professional relationships. Technology that facilitates these relationships wins
  • End users always have the last word: they will vote with their clicks

eComm2008, day 2: Tangoing with the telcos

March 14th, 2008

On day two of the Emerging Communications Conference 2008, multiple speakers focused on the topic of (lack of) openness, in its various forms.

Google’s Group Manager of Mobile Platforms Rich Miner explained Android’s goal of taking away constraints that hamper innovation across the mobile application stack. To bridge the gap between low-level hardware capabilities and ease of use, we need to overcome more than human-factor limitations like small screens and keyboards – these problems can be solved by design, as the iPhone proves. Compelling applications are useless if they’re not easy to discover, distribute, and install. And they won’t be built in the first place unless frictionless business models are in place to stimulate and reward the developer community. So value-killing gatekeepers in the telco or software organizations must get out of the way.

Rich Miner, Google Android Project Manager at eComm 2008 in Mountain View, CA

Android sceptic Dean Bubley pointed out that the large majority of smart phone users don’t care about software stacks and extension capabilities. All they want is a pink phone with a camera and a good battery that will play music and videos. They’re not waiting for mobile Internet applications that come with installation procedures, user logins and extra costs. The $100 billion SMS market will be difficult to substitute overnight.

Apart from the telcos’ cash cow concerns, there’s also an issue of brand protection. It should come as no surprise that Apple is maintaining a firm grip on what applications can make it to the iPhone Apps Store, even though the SDK is free and the Standard code signing process only costs a symbolic  $99. Christopher Allen, who recently organized the first iPhoneWebDev camp, gave a long list of constraints that Apple still imposes on the iPhone developer community. What it comes down to is that in the end, Apple can prohibit anything. So the barriers may be lowered – that’s great – but they’re far from gone.

Crick Waters from Ribbit at eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA

Whereas the Apple iPhone enables innovation on the mobile device, Silicon Valley startup Ribbit goes way beyond this old model we all know so well. Co-founder Crick Waters likes to describe his company as Silicon Valley’s First Phone Company. Whereas the iPhone and its siblings function as a very smart presentation layer on top of a generic mobile Internet, Ribbit takes a radically different approach: it offers a complete platform that places itself in the middle of the cloud, in between the telco networks and the Internet. This unique position allows for much deeper integration and enables a complete redefinition of deeply rooted concepts, like – to name one thing – a phone call.

Ribbit has the appearances of a Web-based CTI platform, but at the scale of the Internet, and is completely open. Despite its disruptive and potentially threatening position, Ribbit partners with incumbent telcos in a revenue-sharing business model. About 3500 Flex developers have already signed up for Ribbit’s developer program, and the first Consumer and Enterprise showcases are available. For the moment, the service is only connected to US carriers, but in these times of blurring geographical phone boundaries, that should not be a problem. To be watched closely!

If companies like Ribbit push incumbent telco companies out of their central position towards the edge of the ecosystem, maybe it’s time these carriers start reevaluating their assets to see what’s left for them in this new world – apart from selling cheap minutes and sending text messages. As Kousjik Chatterjee from Embarq and Johannes Ernst from NetMesh pointed out, one asset that the carriers should cherish is their billing relationship with millions of customers. Billing implies authentication and identity, so here’s an opportunity not to be missed. Link telco customer identity with OpenID and voice biometrics, and we have a new phone-based service for accessing the Internet.

The openID adoption curve presented at eComm2008

What do we need country-specific phone prefixes for, other than as an excuse for carriers to overcharge for international connections? If we want phone numbers to be long-life identifiers for the people that use them, number portability must be able to travel across country borders. CEO Rod Ullens from Brussels-based VoxBone announced that the ITU has granted his company the right to create and distribute a new range of country-neutral numbers with prefix 833. VoxBone will offer the worldwide numbers to the carriers at no charge, hoping that they will pas them on to their customers at the same price. The incumbents would share revenue with VoxBone for all calls originating from the PSTN, and a second revenue stream will come from global premium services. The business model challenge will be to make sure that the end user will not suffer from exorbitant transfer costs. Otherwise the iNum initiative will die a rapid death.

VoxBone CEO Rodrigue Ullens announcing the iNum initiative at eComm2008

Another remarkable initiative was presented by Terranet’s Founder & CEO Anders Carlius. His company has identified an unserved audience in the Third and Fourth Worlds that do not deserve to be overlooked, if only for the yearly revenue potential that they represent: $240 billion! Terranet’s approach is to distribute cheap peer-to-peer mesh phones in local communities, which would cater for daily needs like security & emergency, or simply calling home. As a bonus, the technology enables a great leap forward in crossing the digital divide. It should come as no surprise then that Terranet is bombarded with interest by governmental and private organizations, especially after this BBC interview.

Anders Carlius from Terranet at eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA

On the application side, I first want to mention Fonolo, a “deep calling” service based on reverse-engineered IVR applications. I’m a bit sceptical about the operational scalability of the system, and, frankly, also about the solution that this service offers. It’s already bad enough that IVR menus are not always as user-friendly as they should be; starting a desktop and opening another web application is not the answer. Moreover, just like the GetHuman initiative, it might actually serve as an excuse for IVR and speech application builders not to invest in usability. Which would be kind of counter-productive.

The second service that caught my attention is DialDirections.com, for its simplicity, quality and rapid adoption.

DialDirections service presented at eComm2008

Conclusion: day two of eComm2008 was stuffed with presentations and ideas that can and occasionally will change the world. On the one hand, the innovators at the edge take their distance from the carriers or, like Ribbit, push them out of their luxurious central position; on the other hand, the incumbents’ weight is so large that one way or another they cannot be fully ignored or circumvented. This tango has only just begun, and every now and then the dance partners will inevitably step on each other’s toes. But as everyone knows: it takes two to tango.