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SALT May Energize Speech-Technology Market

Standards emerging in speech technology could boost the market and make software development easier.

Emerging standards in speech technology could give a much-needed boost to an industry hampered by proprietary software and hardware.

Today, VoiceXML from the Worldwide Web Consortium is the primary standard for building an interface to access an application by telephone. Called interactive voice response, or IVR, such applications make it possible to get stock quotes or check account balances without talking to a person. Nevertheless, most IVR software and hardware is proprietary, which has slowed the market by making it impossible for software developers to build an application that can run on multiple platforms. The user "is stuck with one vendor, and everything costs way more than it should," says Brian Strachman, senior analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group.

But that may change faster than anticipated with the release of SALT, a speech technology specification under development by Cisco Systems, Comverse Technology, Intel, Microsoft, Royal Philips Electronics, and SpeechWorks Technologies. SALT, or speech application language tags, is scheduled for release this quarter, and is set to be turned over to an independent standards body by midyear. While VoiceXML has focused on IVR applications, SALT concentrates on multimodal communication, or the ability to ask for information over a cell phone, PDA, or other handheld device, and get a text response.

While SALT is expected to overlap somewhat with VoiceXML, it's difficult to say how much the two will compete, since the SALT specification isn't yet available. "It's all conjecture at this point," Strachman says. Nevertheless, even multiple standards are better for an industry than no standards, which means developers have to write software for each vendors' software or hardware. "There are very few third-party developers building (speech) applications, because it's so difficult," Strachman says. Using figures from 2000, the latest available, In-Stat pegs the overall speech technology market--hardware and software--at about $1.5 billion.

Microsoft also is expected to energize the market when it begins rolling out SALT-based technology later this year. The company is expected to release a beta version of a software development kit in April, and a beta version of its new platform for deploying interactive, voice-enabled Web applications in the fourth quarter. Microsoft last week announced a partnership with SpeechWorks, which has licensed its technology to Microsoft. Strachman expects to see the first SALT applications by the first quarter of next year.

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