2021 Speech Industry Award Winner: Microsoft Buys Big with Nuance

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Any time you spend almost $20 billion on anything, you’re bound to get noticed. In the speech technology industry, when that purchase involves Nuance Communications, one of the largest and most wide-reaching speech companies, it could arguably be the story of the year.

Nuance had long been considered an acquisition target, and Microsoft finally pulled off a deal in April worth $19.7 billion.

Microsoft reportedly plans to use Nuance’s technology to augment its cloud products for healthcare, which were launched last year.

“Nuance provides the AI layer at the healthcare point of delivery and is a pioneer in the real-world application of enterprise [artificial intelligence],” Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said in a statement at the time. “AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most urgent application. Together, with our partner ecosystem, we will put advanced AI solutions into the hands of professionals everywhere to drive better decision making and create more meaningful connections as we accelerate growth of Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare and Nuance.”

“Together, Nuance and Microsoft will accelerate innovation and continue to advance the next generation of conversational AI solutions as we mutually gain even greater focus, highly specialized resources, and global scale to better serve our customers,” Nuance CEO Mark Benjamin wrote in a blog post. “Together, we will use our combined breadth and depth of knowledge, shared purpose, collective talents, and tight alignment of resources and structure to drive profound and positive difference in the lives of others.

“Together, Nuance and Microsoft will be well-positioned to seize the significant opportunity to help transform healthcare delivery to create a more sustainable future, applying the latest advances in AI and cloud technologies to enable more personal, affordable, effective, and accessible care,” Benjamin continued. “Combining the full power of Microsoft’s global scale and infrastructure with our highly complementary, deeply verticalized conversational AI applications will greatly advance Microsoft’s Intelligent Cloud strategy across the financial services, telecommunications, travel, retail, and government industries. Additionally, we will be able to further accelerate our cloud-based solutions, both domestically and internationally, and complement Microsoft’s existing intelligent engagement portfolio with our IVR, virtual assistants, digital messaging, and biometric solutions.”

Microsoft already has voice recognition built into many of its products, including its Cortana virtual assistant.

Kevin Brown, a customer experience architect, sees the deal accelerating Nuance’s service delivery from the cloud. Though Nuance has recognized the importance of cloud delivery, its offerings there haven’t been very strong, according to Brown. But with Microsoft’s Azure cloud architecture, all that could change, he says.

But even before the Nuance deal, Microsoft had a pretty robust speech portfolio on its own. This year, it moved to advance the technology further by signing on as a founding member of the Linux Foundation’s Open Voice Network, an open-source association dedicated to advancing open standards that support the adoption of AI-enabled voice assistance systems, expanding awareness of conversational AI, and providing guidance on the voice-specific protection of user privacy and data security.

“To speak is human, and voice is rapidly becoming the primary interaction modality between users and their devices and services at home and work. The more devices and services can interact openly and safely with one another, the more value we unlock for consumers and businesses across a wide spectrum of use cases, such as conversational AI for customer service and commerce,” said Ali Dallou, general manager of Microsoft Azure AI, strategy, and commercialization, in a statement.

And if that wasn’t enough, Microsoft Teams became one of a few communications and collaboration platforms that served as a central hub for businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of speech analytics, captioning, recording, and contact center solutions providers, including Dialpad, Dubber, 8x8, NICE, Bright Pattern, Lifesize, CallTower, RingCentral, Vonage, 3CLogic, Contexta360, and CyberTwice, lined up to integrate with Microsoft Teams. This is not surprising, considering Microsoft Teams is used by more than 145 million people.

“We see a significant shift in how businesses are communicating with their customers, and we believe Microsoft Teams is a leading force in this new paradigm,” says Sil Steffens, CEO of CyberTwice, a cloud-based recording and archiving solutions provider.

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