The 2007 Star Performers

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Over the last 12 months there have been several standout speech technology vendors that have contributed to the industry’s growth. Their
contributions can come in many forms—a promising product or service launch, a heightened company-wide focus on speech technology through alliances or mergers and acquisitions, or exceptional execution of an existing product or service. While these companies may have excelled in different areas, they all have one thing in common: they’re bringing the speech technology industry to new heights. These efforts should be rewarded. That’s why we bring you this year’s Speech Industry Star Performers:

SpeechGear Excles in Attention to Details

As we tried to single out one vendor in translation services this year, we found the category a hard oyster to shuck. It’s not a popular concentration and there were few analysts who felt qualified enough to speak about it. Part of the problem is that translation services can entail speech-to-speech automated translation, automated speech transcription, or translated content for predefined scenarios, among others. Additionally, a given vendor might specialize in some of these categories, but not necessarily all of them. The entire thing can seem a bit overwhelming.

And yet, most of the analysts pinpointed SpeechGear as a company of particular interest. SpeechGear’s Compadre suite of instant language translation software includes a series of translation solutions, each targeted to a specific user need. It includes five modules that can be used independently or merged in any combination: Compadre Interact, a bidirectional speech-to- speech interactive language solution; Compadre Interpreter, a PDA translator with speaker-independent speech recognition, multiple voice synthesis options, and a dictionary with more than 40,000 entries; Compadre Document, a text-to-text solution for translations of Microsoft Office files; Compadre Camera, which translates text in scanned images in more than 200 languages; and Compadre Composer, which allows users to enter new terms and phrases to their translation database.

Analysts commended the Northfield, Minn.-based company’s attention to detail, particularly to colloquialisms and idioms in a particular language, noting that language is malleable and slang is ever-changing and often indecipherable. "They're high-powered and have linguistic rules internally," says Judith Markowitz, president of J. Markowitz Consultants. "They definitely support speech import, but it's for more restricted phrases. For speech output, you can get some really powerful stuff because you build the phrases yourself and you can build them right at the moment you're using them."

This adaptability is important. Recognizing casual conversation is a particular handicap of machine translation. —Ryan Joe

Microsoft Is on the Move

Until recently, software giant Microsoft had been playing catchup when it came to speech technologies. This past year, though, the company piled a lot onto its plate. In March, it acquired Tellme Networks, expanding its presence in the speech-enabled mobile search environment. Its late-January launch of the Vista operating system, which has all the components of speech-enablement built in, was a milestone in the company’s history. With it, users can dictate documents and email messages in mainstream applications, navigate and fill in forms on the Web, and command applications and the operating system, all with their voices. The technologies also make Vista easier to integrate with screen readers, text-to-speech applications, and other assistive technologies.

Around the same time Microsoft also rolled out its Office 2007 product suite and the Speech Server 2007 IVR platform, and is currently beta-testing its Exchange Server 2007. All three will be key components of a much larger unified communications environment that is in development.

Through a unique alliance forged with Nortel late last year, Microsoft promises to transform business communications. As the alliance enters its second year, the companies are continuing their joint research and development efforts across enterprise, carrier, and mobile product lines and are poised to ship a variety of new and updated unified communications products in the coming months. "Our relationship with Nortel is an important component of our strategy for unified communications, and over the past year we’ve hit significant milestones that benefit both companies," says Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president for the Unified Communications Group at Microsoft. "In the year ahead, we expect to see even more robust customer interest around the world based on our joint technology solutions."

These solutions show the most promise for Microsoft, which is poised to push speech technologies into new areas. "With its integrated speech platforms, it has the potential to go as far as it wants," says Ian Jacobs, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "Time will tell as it develops its technologies further." —Leonard Klie

Verizon Business Gains Attention for Hosted IVR

Increasingly, corporate and government customers are trusting Verizon Business to deliver world-class customer contact center solutions. Within the past few months alone, many other companies, including Cisco Systems and Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, have also saluted the Basking Ridge, N.J.-based company for its efforts to build partnerships with them to advance call center technologies. And Frost & Sullivan gave it the "Customer Service Leadership Award for Managed Services," while Gartner listed it in the leaders quadrant of its "Magic Quadrant for U.S. Managed and Professional Network Service Providers."

A key component of the Verizon Business Contact Center portfolio, the hosted interactive voice response (IVR) product line includes enhanced intelligent call routing, automatic call distribution, workforce management and quality monitoring, speech services, Internet-based IVR, and more.

Using the advanced capabilities of the Verizon Business Customer Center, Contact Center Service customers can order products, manage their networks, view and pay invoices, and access tools and tickets. These capabilities include Verizon IP Toll Free, which routes incoming toll-free calls over IP to enable greater efficiency and support multiple-contact media, such as phone calls, email, or instant messaging, from around the globe; and Verizon Business’ Dashboard feature, which empowers customers with a near real-time view of their network from one portal.

"Verizon Business has a long heritage and significant strengths within the hosted contact center services market," said Seema Lall, a former contact center strategic analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "Hosted IVR services represent a strategic growth market for the company and one that it has penetrated with a great deal of success and demonstrated leadership. Verizon Business has excelled in staying ahead of the curve in understanding and responding to its customers' requirements.

"Going forward, Verizon Business’ expansive IP infrastructure will allow the company to retain its lead in the hosted IVR market by controlling costs and cutting time-to-market for innovative new capabilities," Lall adds.

Additionally, a number of other analysts and officials at the company itself expect Verizon to continue to develop a feature-rich and technologically strong product portfolio, a deeper understanding of hosted services dynamics, and its core strengths in network services to continually upgrade its IVR portfolio to incorporate the latest technology advances, such as developments in speech recognition and natural language research.—Leonard Klie

Worldly Voices Provides a World of Choices

Though its Web site takes a no-frills approach, don’t let its unassuming presentation act as an indicator of its abilities—with 12 years experience and more than 1.3 million voice prompts recorded, Worldly Voices is a company to watch within voice prompt recording.

Based in Nashville, Tenn., the company has distinguished itself, according to analysts, through its hands-on approach with customers. Susan Hura, founder of SpeechUsability and a member of the AVIOS board, appreciated Worldly Voice’s unique position within the field.

"I was impressed with the set-up that they had," Hura says. "They let clients choose among a variety of different voices; it was a wider range of different voice actors they worked with than I was used to."

Despite a bevy of in-house voice talent, Worldly Voices is also committed to allowing customer input and direction. Customers can do remote coaching for voice actors, and set up voice sessions, rather than just sending off a script and waiting for a finished product to be returned to them.

This type of customization and customer control, however, comes with a price. "They’re pretty pricey," Hura points out. "If they’ve got exactly what you want, it’s probably worth the cost. If it was one of those cases where you were looking for something more unusual and you couldn’t find at another voice prompt company, it could be worth it."

Despite a heftier price tag, Worldly Voices’ flexibility and high customer satisfaction ratings speak for themselves. With more than 200 audio formats, and prompts for dozens of speech communication needs, Worldly Voices remains a rising player within the voice prompt field. —Lauren Shopp

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