Behind Microsoft's Tellme Acquisition: Pizza To Go

Voice-command specialist would fill a niche in Microsoft's expanding line of voice-enabled products.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 17, 2007

3 Min Read

Microsoft's planned acquisition of Tellme Networks adds to its growing portfolio of speech technologies. What's different is how Tellme's software is put to use: helping mobile phone users find what they want without the clumsy typing.

Terms weren't disclosed last week, but analysts pegged the deal at about $800 million. Tellme's voice-command technology, including a search engine that makes database matches, is offered as a service. Companies that use Tellme for customer service include American Airlines, AT&T's 411 directory assistance, and E-Trade.

Tellme handles inquiries from 40 million mobile phone users a month. That's more than Google and Yahoo combined, company officials claim. "People on the mobile phone are on the go. They don't want to have to type," Tellme CEO Mike McCue says. "The phone should ask you what you want to do, and you should tell it."

Domino's Pizza uses Tellme's service to route callers to its nearest outlet, and it's testing Tellme's ability to take orders. When a caller says "delivery," the system checks to see if the customer has called before, reads back the address if it finds one, and checks other data sets if it can't. "Phone self-service is something we really find useful," says Rob Weisberg, Domino's director of precision marketing.

But it's not necessarily easy. To populate the database with the language of pizza orders, Domino's recorded thousands of phone calls and loaded them into voice libraries.

Microsoft, which made its first big push into speech in 2004 with the release of Speech Server, is rapidly expanding into the world of voice. Windows Vista comes with dictation capabilities, while Exchange 2007 lets Outlook users give voice commands to access mailboxes and change calendars. Beta releases of Microsoft's first voice-over-IP systems--Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007--are due this month. Notably, Microsoft's speech-recognition engine already is used in Tellme's hosted service.

Speech recognition typically is used in customer service applications--to the consternation of consumers everywhere. Microsoft and other vendors think the technology is ready to be used more broadly. "You're going to see a wide range of integration of communications technologies into the fundamental business applications infrastructure," says Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division.

SAP bundles with its NetWeaver middleware development tools that let companies create voice commands for their CRM and ERP applications. SAP partner VoiceObjects last week disclosed plans to integrate its voice-command server with NetWeaver.

Sprint offers voice-activated search to Palm Treo and BlackBerry users via Nuance Communications' mobile search service. Customers can verbally update calendars and create messages that get translated into text. One of Sprint's content sources is the Gannett news service, tapped into via Mobile Voice Control, a company that Nuance acquired last year. Nuance is testing Web search with telcos and other partners.

Google was granted a patent last year for Google Voice Search, once a prototype that let Web users call an automated voice search system at Google's headquarters, say a search term, then click on a link to see the results. The demo is no longer active, and Google isn't saying what it plans to do with the technology.

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