IBM and Cisco Join Forces to Deliver Speech to Contact Centers

IBM and Cisco Systems are set to announce today a joint effort to combine IBM's WebSphere Voice Server and Cisco's Internet Protocol-based Customer Voice Portal to deliver speech-enabled, self-service solutions for enterprise contact centers.

“This [project] adds contact center applications to the list of things that can be knit more easily into the corporate LAN or WAN,” says Dan Miller, senior analyst at OPUS Research. “It leverages the success that Cisco has had building up capacity on the broad-band WAN. Now we’re seeing activity in the open-source community that adds IP telephony applications and maturing standards for call routing and handling—Voice Over IP—into the corporate setting in a way that is reliable enough for production.”

IBM and Cisco are in the process of combining their technologies to deliver “a single integrated platform upon which to develop a new generation of speech applications”—applications designed to allow businesses to extend enterprise-class speech self-service to remote locations across both IP and non-IP networks, including local and branch offices.

The two companies also plan to work with independent software vendors and system integrators to leverage that integrated platform to create and market specific contact center solutions. These solutions would allow customers to use speech automation to do things that would otherwise require a live agent—things like transferring money from a checking account, submitting insurance claims, changing cellular phone plans, making hotel and car reservations or finding the nearest store—through conversational self-service.

A third aspect of this announcement focuses on developers, and emerges from IBM and Cisco's ongoing push toward open standards, including Voice XML and J2EE, explains Bruce Morse, VP of IBM's Contact Center Solutions group.

“We recognize that there's a need to pull together the Voice XML community and the J2EE Web development community, and to establish a common developer environment that starts to converge the Web and speech programming model around those technologies,” Morse says. “A big part of this relationship is our intention to work together to do that, and to integrate our tools and work with mutual partners to start driving activity toward reusable dialog components.”

IBM's Reusable Dialog Components (RDCs) are open-source, Java-based software components designed to aid in the rapid development of speech applications. IBM contributed several RDCs to the open-source Apache Software Foundation last year.

Cisco's voice portal product currently incorporates VoiceXML, which provides Internet tools for speech application development, and Media Resource Control Protocol (MRCP), which facilitates integration of speech recognition and text-to-speech.

By providing Java developers with components based on standards and programming models with which they're already familiar, Morse says, the two companies open up speech development to millions of Java jocks.

“We saw the same thing happen during the evolution of the Web,” he says. “In the beginning, you had a handful of highly skilled people doing what amounted to black-magic type programming. Over time we figured out ways to move some of the lower-level capabilities, through tooling and open standards, down to the masses. There are now 3 million J2EE Web developers out there. It won't happen overnight with speech, but if we can move just 10 percent of the lower-level programming capabilities to Web developers, we'll have effectively grown the developer community by tenfold.”

OPUS's Miller sees this partnership as a timely one that signals the ramping up of a process of migrating high-volume contact centers to the IP framework. He also sees it as a formidable extension of a long-standing relationship.

“There are only a few firms that have the chops to put together entire speech solutions for the enterprise, and to provide the tools for the system integrators that actually simplify things rather than making them more complicated,” he says. “For large enterprises in particular, having IBM and Cisco bless an approach and offer pre-packaged solutions, uncomplicates the decision.”

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].