Faye Matthews, Strategic Marketing Manager, Aculab

Q Please update us on what Aculab has been doing with speech technology.

A Aculab has developed a hardware and software product portfolio to satisfy the speech and network access requirements of developers looking to meet today's and tomorrow's communication requirements. The number of innovative applications being developed excites us at Aculab. Our role is to provide developers with the support to successfully complete applications that 'simply speak for themselves'!

For a developer wanting to integrate speech into a telecommunications solution, it is Aculab's goal to deliver the enabling technologies required - be it for an enterprise or service provider.

Aculab has tackled the speech processing market opportunity from two different angles - hardware and software. From a hardware perspective Aculab has developed Prosody - a DSP resource card that can provide speech, fax and data processing capabilities, as well as telephony network access in a single card solution.

From a software perspective, in addition to providing support for the leading speech processing products from the likes of Nuance, Scansoft and Speechworks, Aculab saw the opportunity to offer to developers a cost effective alternative. Aculab recognizes the complexities of selecting and integrating speech processing technology and the different criteria that needs to be considered. Hence in 1997, we began development of our own portfolio of speech technologies including ASR and TTS and most recently speaker verification and identification.

We follow a 'horses for courses' philosophy when it comes to speech technology. If you are looking to develop a customer service voice portal, issues like persona are critical. If you are looking to develop an employee voice dialing application, recognition and confirmation are the main requirements - this is where Aculab technology comes in, which is available with a cost-free licence with the Prosody card.

Q Please describe your deployment that helps 'old friends' to get reunited and why they chose to deploy speech processing in the solution.

A Friends Reunited is a Web site service that allows its members to find out what old friends are doing now and enables them to make contact. Launched in August 2000, the site now has nearly eight million members. Aculab's Prosody DSP resource card is used in the VoiceXML interpreter designed by NewVoiceMedia (NVM) and provides digital network access and speech processing capabilities so that Friends Reunited can offer their members new speech-enabled services. Members can send a voice message to old friends via email and hold a voice 'reunion' by dialing into a conference service. Messages are sent using personal ID numbers. Aculab's text-to-speech speaks back the recipient's name for verification. This gives members the confidence that they are leaving the message for the correct person. The voice message is then recorded and can be converted to a .WAV file and sent to a friend as an email attachment. Friends can also call into the system and hear the message. Using speech technology was the only way that this service could be offered.

Q What are some of the obstacles you are finding in deploying speech applications? Are these due to legacy, proprietary type of communications systems?

A We are aware of some remaining obstacles, which are really a result of a technology moving from an early adopter to early majority stage of its life cycle. The main issues are:

  1. Implementation costs and licence costs: although a system using speech technology may be cheaper, what do you do with existing systems and people? There needs to be a top-level plan.
  2. Internal support and training issues.
  3. Lack of awareness: people who sign off the projects are still unconvinced about the technology and reliability even if the teams responsible for deployment have fully bought into it.
  4. Compatibility with existing applications is probably the only issue for legacy systems. For instance in call centers, it is obviously a good place to add a speech enablement to get to menus quicker and to do skills based routing, but if a decision is made now and the call center moves or changes its supplier, what happens to the speech enabled application?

Q Aculab calls its partner program "Connected with Aculab". Please explain this program and how a company can become an Aculab partner.

A "Connected with Aculab" provides unique, specialist and proven sales, marketing and technical support for Aculab's valued customers and strategic alliances. The ultimate aim of "Connected with Aculab" is to provide an environment where Aculab and our partners are successfully working in unison, strategically enabling global communications via open, powerful and market leading products and services.

Aculab has always been proud of and praised for the quality of service we offer in assisting our customers and alliances to achieve success. Technical support, swift and accurate response times, flexibility in product development, dedicated account management and essential training are just some of the support offerings we make available to all companies working in collaboration with Aculab. The "Connected with Aculab" partner program is an extension of these services and enables Aculab to further invest in our partners' future by sharing our sales, marketing and technical expertise and providing a myriad of tools, which will enable them to continue to grow their businesses successfully.

The scheme is free and offers the opportunity to take advantage of Aculab's competitive position and marketing effort through a number of joint promotions. These include; an invitation to exhibit at major trade shows on the "Connected with Aculab" stand, Web listings and hyperlinks, editorial features, beta trials of new technology and priority bookings for seminars.

To become a partner all a company has to do is purchase product from Aculab or have a product that is complementary to Aculab's technology.

Q How do you feel about the emerging standards VoiceXML and SALT? Does Aculab support them both? Others?

A Many of Aculab's customers have seen the benefits of using, or providing VoiceXML, and we expect to see a number of our customers choosing to use SALT in the future.

These standardized application programing languages enable application developers to harness the powerful and diverse components that Aculab provides. So, as application interfaces converge, the choice of Aculab speech, DSP and telephony components becomes even more compelling.

Aculab is wholeheartedly in favor of standardized interfaces, whether for speech application scripts, telephony, speech technology or DSP resource management and is a member of both forums. Selection of a provider for these components should be based on quality, reliability, value and support, rather than the inertia that is a consequence of proprietary APIs.

Q How does Aculab differ from its competitors? Who are your major competitors?

A You could argue Aculab has no direct competitors in that no one else offers the portfolio of products and services that we do. We use the term co-petitors in a number of scenarios, whereby we mean that we do have an overlap and hence compete in some areas, but mainly do not. Traditional hardware vendors like Intel Dialogic, Brooktrout and NMS Communications offer a subset of our speech functions - Aculab also has some overlap with speech software vendors like Nuance, SpeechWorks and ScanSoft.

The major difference to most co-petitors is that we are independent. We are privately owned by our founder and managing director Alan Pound and this has been significant in these turbulent times with no stressed shareholders or investors to answer to - allowing us to continue our focus on supporting our customers.

Support is certainly a key differentiator. You can't be a serious player in this market without a technically sound product and demonstrating proven deployments is key to getting on 'the shortlist'. However converting that opportunity and then retaining the customer is a far more challenging task, because for the developer the challenge begins with the development of the complete solution.

Aculab has dedicated much time, effort and expertise in providing the assistance developers need from product development stage through to live deployment and beyond. It is one of the key reasons customers leave our competitors to deploy our technology and why they choose to stay with us.

We offer pre sales technical consultancy, product training and a direct technical support process that allows developers to actually discuss issues with the design teams responsible for the product. Aculab also maintains a 'request for change' process, where developers can actually influence the development of products.

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