Dale Hartzell, Vice President of Marketing, SandCherry
Q Tell us a little about SandCherry. How did you get started? What are your objectives for this business? Who are your customers?
A SandCherry was founded to develop software platforms that allow affordable mass deployment of speech-enabled services. Charles Corfield, SandCherry's founder and CEO, was driven to find a solution for enhanced services that combines the best of Web and telecom solutions after firsthand experience with BeVocal, iBasis and various other internet-related ventures. By addressing the fundamental issues of scalability, reliability, flexibility and affordability, SandCherry is establishing leadership in large-scale shared speech infrastructure solutions. Today, due to the flexibility inherent in our product, customers can deploy IVR, speech and multimodal services using a single platform. We believe this will spark tremendous growth in the speech market by creating a viable foundation for the pervasive use of speech in carrier service offerings and enterprise applications. Our primary customer focus is on service providers who can use the SoftServer platform to enhance their own call center solutions and offer enhanced services to consumers and business customers using a shared infrastructure. The flexibility and scalability of the software allows us to make it available for enterprise customers as well. Q Tell us about your SoftServer platform. How is it different from competing products?
A SandCherry's SoftServer platform is an applications and media resource broker that simplifies the integration, deployment and management of enhanced and next-generation services. Unlike rigid hardware-based systems and highly integrated software solutions, the SoftServer software platform delivers tremendous flexibility using standard hardware and software components from leading vendors, while delivering equivalent or superior performance, reliability and availability. With the SoftServer platform, software elements can be combined on a single server or distributed across multiple servers to optimize the system's performance and offer the precise functionality required for each particular application. Product pricing is just as important as technology, especially with the tight capital budgets that exist today. SandCherry offers customers the choice of one-time license purchase, monthly RTU or usage-based RTU pricing. Usage-based pricing significantly reduces the upfront capital expense and allows customers to pay as they generate revenue or realize cost savings. Q Where do you see the carrier business for speech technology going over the next three years? Please provide your thoughts in terms of size and services.
A There are two major trends that we see occurring in carriers today regarding speech technology. The first is consolidation of the independent initiatives that they currently have underway - call center, voice-enabled messaging, voice dialing, voice portal - into a single infrastructure. They have recognized the tremendous cost and maintenance implications of dedicating separate resources and solutions to each initiative. This is driving the need for a large, shared speech resource infrastructure, which aligns with the SoftServer platform philosophy. The second major trend is the separation of content and applications ownership from resource ownership. Carriers shouldn't buy, build, own or maintain speech applications when they are not the source of the content. Driving Directions? Flight Information? Traffic Updates? Those come from enterprise applications. The applications that carriers should own are the ones based on their own content, such as directory services and voice dialing. On the other hand, the carriers are well suited to deploy, manage and maintain large pools of resources such as SALT or VXML browsers, recognition engines and TTS engines that they can provide to users as needed. Why is this relevant? If you look at the web model, the largest source of applications is from the enterprise. Empowering the enterprise to add speech to their web applications taps into a very large development community. When carriers offer speech resources on a usage basis similar to charging for an 800 call they eliminate the need for each enterprise to buy or build an onsite speech solution. This should energize the speech applications market by creating a much larger community of developers. Based on this, we really see three major areas where carriers will focus their service efforts. The first is using voice to augment existing network services: prepaid, voice dialing, voice mail, email and messaging. The second is improving their customer self service and call center. The third area is creating a network-based speech service for enterprise customers. Each of these areas offers staggering potential when you consider that a single large wireless carrier handles up to 150 million calls per day. If only 10 percent of these calls use voice dialing, that is a very sizable number. For the enterprise services, consider that over 100 billion minutes a year terminate at IVR systems. Just think where the speech market will be when enterprises are able to deploy voice service using a carrier-class speech platform without having to build their own to get started. Q What is SandCherry doing to enhance speech technology within the service provider marketplace?
A SandCherry products embody the key characteristics that are most highly valued by carriers: scalability, reliability, availability, standards and flexibility. Innovations include: ·The Media Session Framework, that allows customers to plug in their choice of speech components, such as Nuance, SpeechWorks, Telisma, AT&T and Elan.. ·Concentration and oversubscription of speech resources. The SoftServer can support up to 20 or more users simultaneously using a single recognition engine. For TTS, this can be up to 40 or more. ·Resource pooling that improves service availability and reliability. In the event of a resource failure, users can be switched to available resources without losing the call in progress. ·Management integration that consolidates control for all resources used for service delivery to simplify operational control. Q In a recent Datamonitor report, Benjamin Farmer says that there are some short-term growth opportunities in Germany, Italy, the Nordic Region and China. Are you seeing growth in those areas and where else are you seeing growth for speech deployments?
A SandCherry is very active in North America and Europe today, and planning our expansion into Asia. I would have to agree that we see Europe as a very strong region for speech today given their wireless experience deploying advanced services. Countries at the forefront of activity include France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, we have also seen a strong uptick in activity from the US carriers during the second half of this year which we attribute to their need to start on their 2003 service initiatives. Q What are your thoughts on two markup languages, VoiceXML and SALT? What does the evolution of these two standards mean to your customers.
A VXML and SALT will both exist over the near term, and SandCherry is committed to supporting browsers from a number of leading vendors to give our customers a choice. VXML has the most momentum near term because it has been around the longest and fits with IVR-based speech application, which is where the market has been predominantly. It is suited for users transitioning from proprietary IVR scripting languages to a more Web-like application environment. SALT is a very attractive language for web application developers because it fits very well within the constructs of current HTML and Java applications. We really expect to see a growing number of enterprises using SALT to augment their existing Web-based applications with speech capabilities as the market moves from IVR-centric solutions to a Web-centric solutions. Q Who are your partners and why did you choose these companies?
A SandCherry is actively expanding its partner program, with three types of partners: applications partners, such as Vialto, that create compelling services for customers; solutions partners, such as ASA, Uniteam and Vicorp, that provide complete integrated offerings using the SoftServer platform; and technology partners, such as Elan, Kirusa, Nuance, SpeechWorks, Sun and Telisma that provide essential media resources and system components. Q What can speech developers do to enhance the acceptance of speech technologies with service providers?
A First and foremost, the solutions must fit the business model of the carrier and complement their existing service offerings. Selling a voice portal is a challenge when many carriers are exiting internet-related businesses such as portals and Web hosting. A voice dialer or voice-enabled directory service is a far better fit because it adds new life to a carrier's existing core services. Next, one must realize that the carriers deploy a platform or system to deliver service and that browsers, recognition engines and TTS engines are only components of these systems, not a complete solution. Speech vendors have worked very hard to successfully sell carriers on the value of speech recognition only to have the deployments delayed, deferred or cancelled once the carrier understood everything else they had to do to deploy an actual solution. Look at the number of carrier trials over the last several years and then ask why speech isn't more widely deployed today. The answer is that for small, contained trials they could live with a highly customized, operationally intensive, integrated solution as a proving ground for applications and human factors. Unfortunately, these solutions didn't provide a viable solution for supporting millions of users as they were far too expensive to deploy, maintain and integrate with existing systems. Q What is holding these solutions (speech technology) back from being mass deployed globally?
A The first has been the issue around making speech platforms that are scalable as well as affordable. SandCherry is actively addressing this with our SoftServer platform and our flexible pricing models to eliminate the deployment barriers. In addition, we are engaging carriers interested in establishing network-based services that can be leveraged by enterprises, so that any size enterprise can leverage speech without a hefty investment. The second key issue is the applications development issue. Good speech application development shouldn't be limited to a few consultants and integrators - every Web developer should be able to write speech applications. Initiatives such as SALT are starting to enable this transition to a much larger developer pool, but even this is not enough. The speech industry needs to actively educate developers on good voice user interface design. With this knowledge and existing Web development tools, Web programmers will be able to create new speech applications or add speech to existing web applications that deliver the high-quality user experience required to increase acceptance and use of speech applications.