Mom and Pop Shops Gain a Voice

Speech applications are being widely deployed among large companies that can afford the expense of developing and deploying speech applications. Most Fortune 500 companies have now deployed call routing, automated help, and information access applications. However, small businesses, the so-called "mom and pop shops," cannot afford expensive professional services and licenses to design a VUI, record professional voice talent, and monitor and fine-tune speech applications. This is changing. Three trends that enable IVR systems for mom and pop shops without costing an arm and a leg include prepackaged applications, free starter VoiceXML platforms, and reusable dialog components.

Pre-packaged Applications - Pre-packaged applications can be easily retrofitted to meet some of the specific needs of mom and pop shops. These applications are inexpensive because the development cost is amortized across several businesses that purchase these applications.

Angel.com[1] provides several generic applications including the following, which can be easily tailored and deployed to assist customers in just a couple of days:

  • Store locator—help customers to find your nearest location
  • Order line—accept orders 24/7 from customers
  • Order status—enable customers to access status information in your existing database
  • Literature request—enable customers to request printed material which is then mailed or faxed to them
  • Gift-card management—assist customers to order new gift cards, check their balance, and "recharge" (add funds) to an existing card

Apptera's v-Business Solutions[2] include not only retail and financial applications like those from Angel.com, but also pharmaceutical applications (refilling prescriptions, checking drug information, in-store promotions, etc.) and publishing applications (subscriber enrollment, change of address, subscription extensions, etc.).

A disadvantage of pre-packaged applications is the effort to tailor and retrofit them to meet the particular needs of the business, but for applications that closely match the business needs, this problem can be small. If pre-packaged applications don't match your needs, then you can "do it yourself" by writing your own application.

Free VoiceXML Starter Platform - Businesses can either outsource development of their applications or build them in-house. Plenty of companies are eager to help businesses design, implement, debug, and deploy speech applications. However, there is now a community of VoiceXML developers who can easily create applications using online toolkits such as those from BeVocal, Tellme, Voxeo, and others. Developers may also download toolkits for developing speech applications from companies such as IBM, and there are several online VoiceXML development toolkits that can be used without cost.

Recently, Voxeo announced Prophecy,[3] a Voice over IP (VoIP) VoiceXML platform providing high-quality speech recognition and speech synthesis. Prophecy is available as premise software sold by the port, as a hosted service charged per minute, or as a hybrid where applications are hosted both on premise and on Voxeo's hosted network simultaneously. Immediately available at www.voxeo.com, the two-port version of Prophecy is free. Small businesses requiring only a port or two can use this system for free when using their own applications. You can purchase additional ports as more and more customers use your applications. Voxeo has useful tutorials and a powerful application authoring kit for developing applications.

Hopefully, Prophecy developers will establish and contribute software to an open source library for anyone to use. The Prophecy developers can both reuse applications from others and develop their own applications.

Reusable Dialog Components and Development Tools - IBM contributed its Reusable Dialog Components (RDCs)[4] to the Apache Software Foundation[5] as open source software freely available to anyone. RDCs are Java Server Page (JSP) tags that enable dynamic development of voice applications. JSPs that incorporate RDC tags automatically generate W3C VoiceXML 2.0 at runtime that can execute on any VoiceXML compliant platform. Example RDCs include: solicit a telephone number, solicit a credit card number, and solicit a date. Developers integrate RDCs into their VoiceXML applications, providing a robust and consistent set of "voice controls."

Packaged applications, a free starter VoiceXML platform and development environment, and reusable dialog components will make speech applications more affordable to thousands of mom and pop shops, not just the Fortune 500 companies that can afford the expense of hiring professional development services. Just as in the early days of the visual Web, some of these home-grown applications will be ugly and difficult to use, but they will be replaced by better applications as a new class of developers emerge who create applications for a very large class of customers—the world's mom and pop shops.

James A. Larson is manager of advanced human input/output at Intel Corporation and is author of the home study guide and reference "The VXMLGuide" www.vxmlguide.com. His Web site is www.larson-tech.com.

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