• September 1, 2003
  • Q & A

Bob Clough, General Manager, Microsoft Speech Technologies

Congratulations on joining Microsoft Speech Technologies. Please tell us about your career. Has it all been with Microsoft?

Bob Clough Thanks. As an 11 year veteran at Microsoft, I'm really excited about my most recent assignment to the Speech Technologies Group under Kai-Fu Lee. I joined MS in 1992 tasked to open a subsidiary in Moscow, Russia. I then moved to Munich, Germany, to run sales and marketing for Eastern Europe, including opening more subsidiaries in countries like Bulgaria, Romania, etc. In 2000 I moved back to the U.S. to establish a sales organization focused on the small business segment. So my background really is about building new businesses for Microsoft, which is the key reason why I'm so excited about taking on the "speech challenge."

With that background why join Microsoft Speech Technologies and not take another market opportunity? What are your responsibilities at Microsoft Speech Technologies?

BC Speech is one of the few remaining really hard problems to solve in computing and I like hard problems. As general manager for sales and marketing, it's my job to build the ecosystem of partners and Microsoft sales assets to bring the Microsoft Speech Server and other technologies to market successfully. I also contribute to product strategy decisions as we endeavor to deliver on our vision of making speech mainstream.

Are their any similarities between developing markets in countries that have inadequate infrastructures and developing a market for speech technologies?

BC Absolutely. Markets don't just happen, markets are built. World-class technology and products are necessary ingredients for building markets, but they're not sufficient. You also need a series of partners (resellers, system integrators, software vendors, hardware providers, training centers, support capabilities) etc. to fully bring solutions to markets. After all, customers don't pay for technology, they pay to solve problems, and very rarely are their problems presented in a way that one company on its own solve. It takes an ecosystem, and Microsoft's history is all about technology and product development happening hand in hand with the industry ecosystem development. We can play a leading role if we do it right, but we can't do it all ourselves. And that's true in Russia as much as it is in the U.S.

Recently we have seen companies such as HP acquire companies within the speech space and deals such as ScanSoft merging with SpeechWorks and Fluency acquiring Vocalis. Do you feel there will be more consolidation within this space? Should there be more consolidation?

BC We're on a path of broadening the speech market from where it exists today. We congratulate and respect the work that's been done in the industry and we're continuing our effort to broaden the opportunities, to make speech technologies more affordable and thereby more available to many more customers across the spectrum. To do that, the industry needs to remove cost and improve simplicity, which often entails pulling some technologies together which were previously provided by separate companies. I think consolidation is a natural thing to happen for existing players, but our focus is really on growing the industry so new players can enter the market, particularly in the software applications space and the systems integration space. So yes, some existing players will choose to consolidate, but in terms of numbers, there will be many more new players entering this growing market so there will be lots of vibrancy and positive growth for the industry.

Compare speech solutions versus other forms of customer service automation such as Web based, touch-tone and live agent support. What are your customers telling you about speech versus other modes of customer interaction?

BC Most customers don't believe that speech can deliver on the promise of a positive caller experience coupled with reduced cost for the company. Part of that is due to very high "Star Trek" like expectations that the industry doesn't have a chance of meeting today, so some of our work is about setting appropriate expectations for what we can and can't do. Secondly, all customers are talking about reducing cost for providing a service and are quite creative in thinking through scenarios where they can make that happen, usually starting with business to employee type applications. In short, companies are overcoming their skepticism with internal applications before trying it out on paying customers. They see the obvious improvements that a speech interface can bring to the table, and are very willing to try it out.

In recent reader research, readers of Speech Technology Magazine cited the costs associated with the purchase of these technologies as the biggest factor in limiting the growth of speech. What are your thoughts concerning the hurdles that need crossing to increase the adoption rate of speech?

BC Yep, it's all about cost, which is another way of saying it's all about complexity of delivering a solution to solve a customer's problem, because complexity is driving today's cost structure. Complexity comes from proprietary systems, non-standard integration scenarios into telephony infrastructures, custom application development, etc. The more that the Microsoft speech platform can remove/reduce the complexities and allow industry players to add value focused on a customer problem rather than add value on connecting disparate IT systems, the better off the industry and the customer will be.

Some companies in the speech ecosystem have questioned the wisdom of partnering with Microsoft. Why should a company become a Microsoft partner? How do you become a partner with Microsoft?

BC In July we launched the Microsoft Speech Partner Program, which is designed to provide additional revenue and profit opportunities for new and existing partners interested in developing, deploying and reselling enterprise-grade speech technology solutions based on Microsoft technologies. We have seen tremendous uptake and interest with literally hundreds of companies joining the program. For more information on the Speech Partner Program and how to become a partner, please visit www.microsoft.com/speech/partners.

What is on the horizon from Microsoft Speech Technologies over the next few months? How will these initiatives impact your customers?

BC In the next several months we will be continuing to develop our partner ecosystem in preparation for our product launch in the first half of next year. We're already engaging customers along with our partner base to give them early access to our technology and we're confident we'll have great momentum established even before the official release of the product.

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