Life After the Killer App.

"Those of you who came here today claiming victory -- standing on the top of the world looking down on all that you achieved -- you'd better look in the opposite direction -- UP. Because that's where we're going." -- William S. (Ozzie) Osborne, keynote speech, SpeechTEK 98.

I never fully understood the term "killer app." It sounds ominous. Does it roam the countryside attacking minor characters in science fiction movies? Does it lurk in dark alleys? Some of my colleagues laugh and, shaking their heads, say that a killer application is like the ending of a fairy tale where we ride into the sunset and live happily ever after. The shining eyes and the hopeful expressions that accompany mention of a killer app. supports that view.

The Story of a Killer App
For many years, affordable, continuous-speech dictation (CSD) was held up as the killer app. for speech recognition. Two years ago affordable CSD became a reality and it has changed how the world perceives speech recognition. CSD transformed speech recognition from a toy to a tool; it earned speech a separate category and shelf space in retail stores; it has attracted more customers and investors; it has spawned more conferences; and it has made many of us more successful.

The Road UP
Has affordable CSD revolutionized information technology? No. Has it ended the dominance of keyboards and mice? No. It is not even used widely for human-computer interaction. What about the companies that offer CSD? Are they riding into the sunset? I interviewed Dragon Systems, IBM, Lernout & Hauspie, and Philips Speech Products and discovered that, once again, the answer is No. All of them expressed a sense of excitement and spoke of the myriad of things they are now doing with their CSD technology. Here are just a few of them.

Dragon Systems
Dragon Systems was the first to offer affordable, commercial CSD with its NaturallySpeaking and it has become a rapidly growing, highly successful company. Jim and Janet Baker are no longer alone at the helm of the company and Dragon has done something it swore it would never do: it went public. According to Roger Matus, Dragon's VP of North American Marketing, Dragon has been transformed from a technology company to a market-driven company -- a solutions provider. To that end, it offers a line of dictation products for different market segments, such as teenagers and mobile executives. The company now talks about its product offerings in terms of the solutions they provide rather than in terms of the technology they possess. The most recently announced member of this product line is the Dragon Naturally Organized, a voice-driven intelligent assistant with killer-app. capabilities that echo the vision expressed by Bill Gates at Comdex in 1998.

IBM's first commercial CSD offering was ViaVoice, but the company had already been testing the waters for CSD with MedSpeak, a medical-transcription product. IBM has a large, broad-based presence in speech recognition based upon more than 25 years of R&D. IBM now has several versions of commercial ViaVoice products in English and other languages. The company has placed special emphasis on its Chinese and Japanese CSD systems which have already garnered sizable market share in Asia. Its research and product-development work using CSD extend in many other directions as well, including speaker-independent systems for transcription of multi-speaker communications, virtual reality, spoken language translation, natural language understanding, and Web browsing.

Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products
Lernout & Hauspie entered the dictation market with its acquisition of Kurzweil AI, and L&H has continued to focus on the health-care industry for its CSD products in technology. The company's plans for CSD extend well beyond healthcare -- and beyond its VoiceXpress consumer CSD product. Through internal development, partnerships, acquisition, and a recently-formed investment company, L&H has built a presence in a number of areas where its CSD technology will play a role, including machine translation, natural-language understanding, and spoken language systems for the Internet. Machine translation is a major focus and company spokespeople refer to high-quality, real-time, education, speech-to-speech translation as a killer app. they hope to build. In January, the company reorganized into three, market focused divisions: Speech and Language Technologies and Solutions (telephony, consumer technology, automotive, PC multimedia and machine translation); Speech and Language Applications (end user and retail applications for CSD in horizontal and vertical markets); and Speech and Language Services (document creation, human and machine translation services and Internet translation offerings). All three are marketing and/or using L&H's CSD technology.

Philips was the first to offer commercial, speaker-independent CSD. Positioning itself as a tool provider, Philips established a network of value-added resellers using Philips' Speech Magic CSD, Speech Mike, and other application-development tools. The company expanded its presence in CSD with the introduction of the Voice Mouse, a hand-held combination voice-input device and trackball, and with FreeSpeech, a low cost CSD consumer product. One area of focus for Philips is on applying its CSD technology to non-dictation applications, such as for telephone assistants and voice-activated Internet applications. The company's recently-established VOCON Department extends the application of its technology into the consumer-electronics arena. At the CES '99 show in January Philips demonstrated intelligent tools for command and control of consumer electronics, such as voice-activated selection of television channels. This new emphasis on consumer electronics puts Philips' work in speech processing into closer alignment with other segments of the company.

And UP
Just as Ozzie Osborne predicted, the major effect of the CSD killer app. has been to push the industry towards the next killer apps., such as real-time speech-to-speech translation and systems that are capable of understanding what we mean when we communicate with them. At the same time, the industry is moving existing technology into the marketplace and helping speech-recognition technology to assume a more prominent position in the world. Given this example of the effects of a killer app., it is clear that the only thing a real killer app. kills, is lethargy.

Judith Markowitz is the technology editor of Speech Technology Magazineand is a leading independent analyst in the speech technology and voicebiometric fields.  She can be reached at (773) 769-9243 or jmarkowitz@pobox.com.

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