Sunil Nikhar, CEO, Ascent Computing Group

Q Tell us a little about Ascent. How did you get started, who are your investors, what are your plans to grow this business?

A Ascent Computing Group Inc. was founded in 1994 and our original line of business was providing Information Technology services and bespoke solutions to the Fortune 1000 - companies such as Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Cisco, Duke Energy, AT&T and others. After rapid growth through referrals and repeat business, we sought to expand our offerings based upon key technical competencies, and decided to enter the speech industry in late 1999 with a voice-enabling module for Internet Explorer. The AscenTel suite, comprising of the Voice Application Platform and a set of Packaged Applications, was formally launched in 2001. We released Ascentel 2.0 last month and will soon be announcing a series of case studies where the solution has been implemented for some well-known and prestigious companies across various verticals.

We are self-funded, and our plans are to capitalize on our industry experience, stability, revenue and customer base in order to gain traction in the market -- at a time when other vendors are reducing headcount, being acquired, or ceasing operations altogether. Our future is voice-technology solutions and custom voice applications.

Q Who are some of your partners and why did you choose those companies to partner with Ascent?

A Apart from selling direct, we are in the process of expanding our partner network through the VAR and agents programs. Over the years, we have partnered with several system integrators for our Business IT Solutions. Currently we are expanding that relationship to include our voice solutions and already have seen several successes on that front.

In the international arena we have partnered with Mindscape (a division of Mashreq Bank, Dubai) and several other companies all around the globe. We also have an offshore center in India where we have partnered with several leading companies to penetrate the Asia-Pacific market.

On the technology front, our partner companies include Intel, Philips, Nuance, Scansoft and AT&T.

Q Can you tell us about the AscenTel Voice Platform?

A Absolutely. As I mentioned, AscenTel 2.0 is under deployment at several client locations, here in the US and globally. We designed the AscenTel platform to be a very cost-effective and a functionally rich solution for companies of all sizes.

AscenTel is an answer to several of the problems faced by customers using legacy IVR systems for various automated voice applications. AscenTel is a next generation IVR system based on VoiceXML, and developed to meet the needs of high-end enterprise call centers. Some of the features of AscenTel include multi-vendor ASR, TTS and CTI middleware integration, inbound/outbound call handling, and outbound call queuing capability. Customers can develop scalable multi-language speech applications with screen pop, which increases the efficiency of call center operation.

In conjunction with the release of AscenTel 2.0, we released Version 1.0 of our Call Manager solution, which is an Application Development Framework, packaged with an auto-attendant dynamic call-routing application and framework for developing IVR-like voice applications. Using the Call Manager clients can convert their existing PBX into a high-end customer service system.

Today, we are enjoying traction in the market because of significant cost advantage over other providers. With our past experience in implementing business solutions we provide an end-to-end solution to the client unlike other platform providers.

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 As I understand, SALT will be a multi-channel solution including voice for telephony applications. Microsoft is positioning itself in an industry where they have not traditionally been a dominant player, thus SALT represents their strategy to enter this space and provide a multi-channel solution.

We are closely watching all the developments in the marketplace and we will try to keep our solution as close to market requirements as possible. We have aligned our Call Manager with the .Net technology framework. The strategy is to have a solution which can adapt to changes in the marketplace. With the lack of 3G deployments and several other issues, the impact of SALT is yet to be fully assessed.

Q Please describe a successful deployment of speech technology with appropriate supporting statistics.

A One of our clients, in Dubai, has deployed several dozen AscenTel ports for a customer facing application with a multiple language interface. By the first quarter of 2003 we expect to have several hundred ports under deployment.

Over the last several months, most of the voice applications deployed by our clients have seen tremendous user acceptance with opt-in for operators reducing drastically over time, thus yielding enormous cost savings. We have tools to tune and enhance the voice applications as the applications start maturing.

Q Where is speech technology going to be in three to five years?

A I feel in the years to come, speech will be one of the channels for interactions with several other channels playing equally important roles. We have witnessed first-hand the significant changes in the Asian Pacific market where SMS far exceeds the simple voice applications and several of our deployments had to include SMS. With Microsoft entering the market and the arrival of 3G in the next couple of years, we believe that speech technology will be much more accepted with several new speech devices running speech and multi-modal applications.

In the years to come, speech will be one of the channels for interaction, with several other channels playing an equally important role.

Q What are some of the barriers to speech technology adoption?

A The major hurdle, besides soft IT budgets, is the user-acceptance issue. Plenty of companies have had bad experiences with poorly designed and ill-conceived systems. Several CEOs and CIOs have experienced a bad speech application in the last couple of years, and it becomes very difficult to sell with that mindset in place. As more and better systems roll out and users start to feel comfortable using them, more companies will pick up on the advantages of speech.

Q What vertical markets are the strongest drivers/implementers of the services speech technology has to offer?
A We see the financial, healthcare, transportation, retail and higher education markets as leading verticals. Security and disaster recovery is also emerging as a strong vertical.

Q What issue(s) do your prospective customers cite as the reason they are not deploying speech?

A Several of our clients were hit with the downturn in the market and reduced IT budget. And although they are "gung ho" about the speech applications, the speech proposals are still on the back burner. I hope several of these clients will embrace speech in 2003.

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