Speech input gets a boost with Microsoft SDK, SALT spec

[PROGRAMMERS REPORT -Sept 24, 2002] - It has been a long wait, but it may be happening. The speech technology market is set for a bounce. In fact, according to In-Stat/MDR analyst Brian Strachman, we're on the 'cusp of a speech recognition revolution.' The Kelsey Group thinks so, too, and expects spending on speech recognition to reach $41 billion by 2005.

One of the most important drivers in this market is the emergence of developer tools, as well as a resulting increase in application production speed coupled with lower development costs, wrote Strachman in a recently published report. Microsoft's .NET Speech SDK, in particular, is likely to push speech app development.

Microsoft announced the beta release of its SDK, a Web developer tool the Redmond software maker bills as the first product based on the new Speech Application Language Tags (SALT) specification, in May. According to James Mastan, group product manager for Microsoft's .NET speech technologies group, the toolset is intended to 'help jumpstart the industry' for building speech-enabled Web applications. Coupled with Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET developer tools, the SDK is designed to add voice to the list of methods for inputting data, which includes the mouse, keyboard and stylus.

Microsoft's entrance into this market has received mixed reviews, but is generally considered a positive development.

'We view Microsoft's involvement here as a good thing,' said Steve Chambers, chief marketing officer at SpeechWorks. 'The company's presence tends to legitimize the technology and draw a lot of attention. And it doesn't hurt that Microsoft is seeding the developer community, so millions of Visual Studio .NET developers will now be able to code speech apps.'

The 1.0 version of the .NET Speech SDK can be used to retool an existing Web application created with Microsoft developer tools. Features include workspaces for programming applications and for creating the spoken questions and answers that a voice-enabled application would need to understand.

However, Meta Group analyst Earl Perkins views Microsoft's speech-tech activities as a double-edged sword. 'I think it has had both a positive and negative effect,' he said. 'It drew attention to a growing market, because Microsoft never enters a market unless they realize there's money to be made. But on the other hand, they introduced another standard, so there may be a bit of a delay while vendors sort out how they're going to support both of them.'

The older standard, Voice eXtensible Markup Language (VoiceXML), has been around for about two-and-a-half years, and there are more than 600 vendors and service providers who currently adhere to this particular standard for development.

SALT was created by the SALT Forum, a group of technology companies working together to accelerate the development of speech technologies in telephony and so-called multimodal systems. Founding members of the group include SpeechWorks, Intel, Cisco Systems, Philips, Comverse and Microsoft.

The SALT Forum has offered the SALT spec to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the same standards body working on VoiceXML. The Forum has asked the W3C Multimodal Interaction Working Group and Voice Browser Working Group to review the SALT specification as part of their development of standards for promoting multimodal interaction and voice-enabling the Web.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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