Gene Cox, Director of Mobile Solutions, IBM Pervasive Computing

Q Tell us about Websphere Voice Application Access (WVAA).

A WebSphere Voice Application Access (WVAA), a new middleware platform, simplifies the building and management of voice portals and more easily extends Web-based portals to voice. Built on IBM's WebSphere Portal framework, WVAA provides mobile workers with a personalized voice portal experience and single phone number access to enterprise data from multiple voice applications. WVAA also leverages existing Web or mobile applications throughout the enterprise and enables greater interoperability among third party speech providers. Basically, WVAA provides developers with the resources they need to build with multimodality top of mind.

And as pervasive computing continues to make computing transparent and ubiquitous - think handhelds, mobile phones, appliances and even automobiles - WVAA takes us a step closer to the more natural interaction we've grown to expect from our devices. As voice and wireless technologies continue to pervade the IT infrastructure in the enterprise, multimodality represents the future interface for developers - with voice being a key component of multimodal interaction.

This new toolkit includes a license for IBM's WebSphere Voice Server as well as ready-to-use email, personal information management (PIM) functions, and sample portlets. WVAA supports open-standard programing languages such as VoiceXML and Java, and includes development tools based on Eclipse - the open-source, vendor-neutral platform for writing software.

Q What is different about this new middleware as opposed to what IBM had been doing?

A IBM's WebSphere Voice Application Access expands upon one of IBM's flagship offerings - WebSphere Voice Server. Based on VoiceXML technology, it includes speech recognition, text-to-speech engines and a voice browser so that voice applications interface easily with existing programing environments.

WVAA, a voice application platform, enhances the VoiceXML development environment by leveraging the WebSphere Portal programing model. This approach allows administrators to easily manage users across multiple channels on a single platform. Instead of recreating new programming environments to voice-enable existing applications, developers use WVAA to deploy consistent programing models for voice applications, mobile applications, and Web applications, and to re-use similar business logic and APIs. Finally, the toolkit offers personalization capabilities that provide one-to-one customization of a user's voice application environment.

The announcement of WVAA is yet another piece of the puzzle that brings us one step closer to a multimodal future in which we'll interact with all of our computing devices in various ways - by voice, by touch, by keystroke, by stylus - depending on what works best in a situation. Eventually, WVAA and WebSphere Everyplace Access (IBM's mobile application) development environments will converge, allowing customers to write single multimodal applications using XHTML + Voice (X+V) that support both voice and visual interactions within the same application. And using WEA, WVAA and WebSphere Portal, users will be able to administer personal preferences across multiple channels and modalities, creating a unique experience and redefining the perceived boundaries of computing.

Q How does this reduce programing time for developers?

A WVAA extends familiar Web portal programing models and tools for voice application development. Web developers already understand the concepts of portal and portlets, so extending this model to voice is an easy transition. Furthermore, since the WVAA Toolkit is a plug-in to WebSphere Studio Site Developer, developers can quickly and easily build, test and deploy voice portlet applications within the same IDE framework they use to create Web applications.

Q What programing languages can port to this platform? Will SALT developers be able to utilize WVAA and how?

A WVAA is built on the WebSphere Portal infrastructure, which supports multiple access channels and programing languages. Alone, WebSphere Portal supports HTML; with WebSphere Everyplace Access for mobile access, it supports xHTML; and with WVAA for voice interaction, it supports VoiceXML. In the future, WVAA and WEA will support the X+V standard so that applications can be written once in X+V and will support both voice and visual interfaces.

Developers using SALT will not be able to port their applications to the WVAA programing environment as WVAA supports X+V.

Q Is this the result of the initiatives IBM has been doing with XHTML + Voice (X+V)?

A Actually, WVAA is central to IBM's Pervasive Computing strategy around portal technology. This strategy leverages WebSphere Portal as the focal point for various offerings, including our mobile application platform WEA and our voice product WVAA. Our overall goal is to provide a multichannel portal platform so that customers can connect to applications and information using a variety of channels and interface options. Today, WVAA and WEA utilize individual programming models (VoiceXML and XHTML, respectively), but in the near future, the WVAA and WEA environments will converge, allowing developers to write single multimodal applications (using X+V) that support both voice and visual interactions within the same application.

Q Why is this important to enterprises wishing to deploy speech?

A Enterprises that deploy speech will enhance worker productivity through increased accessibility to enterprise information and also differentiate themselves from other e-businesses. To maintain a competitive edge, enterprises today need to incorporate the next level of pervasive technology -- the voice interface. For mobile workers, voice is the easiest, most effective way to interact with devices much of the time. And as more and more people depend on mobile phones to serve a variety of needs beyond simple phone calls, the voice interface will play an increasingly important role in retrieving mission-critical enterprise information.

WVAA can link telephone callers to enterprise data and applications that were previously accessible only via computer screens, keyboards and PDAs. And since it is built around the portal framework, users can access personalized content from a single point of entry and navigate to various voice portlets using voice commands.

WVAA aggregates a broad spectrum of information including e-mail, address book, calendar, Web content and e-business applications. By adopting a speech interface, mobile users improve their accessibility to information, their productivity, and overall user experience. As voice rapidly emerges into the mainstream of pervasive technologies, we're seeing a fundamental shift in the way enterprises conduct e-business.

IBM is committed to partnering with service providers, enterprises and device manufacturers to provide technology for devices and user interfaces and to provide middleware for an open, scaleable infrastructure. These initiatives stand to extend pervasive computing out to enterprises looking to enhance and improve the technology they're offering their workers - especially with today's increasingly mobile workforce. And IBM is equally committed to open standards and work with our customers to enhance any existing investments in speech technology and applications - regardless of what platform they're built on.

Q How would developers be able to gain access to WVAA and what would you like them to experience after they've downloaded the product?

A WVAA is currently available to IBM's business partners, which includes developers using it to extend the WebSphere Portal infrastructure programing model for voice access and to build multimodal applications. Portal developers will also be able to extending existing GUI-based Web portals for voice accessibility and creating new voice portlets. In addition, they can download and install the toolkit to deploy the included e-mail/PIM voice portlets and create new voice portlets.

Q Please provide any details of deployments by companies utilizing WVAA and how they are using the solutions in their organizations.

A WVAA just "graduated" from beta testing recently, so many developers are still in beta mode with WVAA, exploring what they can do with WVAA and deploying various portlets. The customer solutions involve voice access to PIM and e-mail applications primarily, with plans to voice-enable additional e-business applications. Our partners, who have considerable experience designing, developing and deploying voice solutions, are planning to extend existing VoiceXML applications to the WVAA infrastructure and create new voice portlets for inclusion in our expanding portlet catalog.

Q What does this development mean in terms of advancing multimodality?

A Voice access to portal-based applications and content is an important next logical step in expanding the range of options available to mobile workers and advancing multimodality. It reduces dependence on the PC, and as voice systems and pervasive devices continue to improve, mobile workers will rely less on PDA- or PC-based interfaces (keyboard, stylus, etc.) and more on voice as the interface of choice - from GUI to VUI - because it's a more natural mode of interaction. Integrated, secure voice access will provide enterprise users a new option in selecting the best method of interface to suit a given situation. And it allows current portal customers to leverage technology investments by applying voice technology to existing and new applications.

So in terms of advancing multimodality, I'd say WVAA is an important brick in the path that will lead us to a truly pervasive, multimodal future because it gives developers more flexibility to create multimodal applications.

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