Microsoft Serves Unified Communications

The end of Microsoft Speech Server as a standalone product is approaching. Microsoft announced Tuesday at SpeechTEK that Microsoft Speech Server 2007, the company's third installment of its touchtone IVR and speech app development system, will be integrated into its unified communications platform, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. Office Communications Server, which was previously known as Live Communications Server, is intended to unify various siloed communication channels including instant messaging, IP telephony, voice response, and audio and video conferencing. Microsoft expects the offering to make it easier for users to locate and connect with the right people at the right time via the most appropriate communication mode. Office Communications Server 2007 will ship next year.

With the Speech Server 2007-Office Communications Server 2007 integration, Microsoft will support current Speech Server customers until 2014, while Speech Server 2004 R2 customers will stay on Microsoft's price list until the end of 2007, according to the company.

The "combination of a mobile workforce and more geographic diversity in our workforce is creating new logistical issues with communications, and at the same time you've got this massive explosion in the modes that we can communicate with," Richard Bray, a general manager in Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, said during his Tuesday morning keynote. Microsoft is investing around "unifying all of those different modes of communication."

Microsoft's entertaining presentation featured a handful of setups of unified communications in action, including one instant messaging exchange between Bray and Bill Barton, who joined Microsoft from its acquisition of Unveil Technologies. Bray spoke into a phone, with his words converted from speech to text into an instant message, while Barton typed with his responses relayed back to Bray's handset.

"The bottom line is this [integration] is a good move for Microsoft," says Daniel Hong, senior voice business analyst at Datamonitor. "By marrying Speech Server with Office Communications Server Microsoft is [reinforcing] its mission to bring speech mainstream."

Microsoft also demonstrated the upcoming release of Windows Speech Recognition, which according to the company will be available for Windows Vista in eight languages, adding support for French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, and U.K. English. The release marks the first time a Microsoft Windows operating system will feature speech recognition functionality, enabling users to use their voices to interact with their computers to perform various tasks like dictate and format text.

On Tuesday customer service advocate Paul English, founder of gethuman.com, announced a set of "standards" intended to improve customer experiences with IVR systems. English's gethuman team will work with companies including Microsoft and Nuance to help drive the adoption of these standards.

Some of these proposed standards, which English noted during his Monday morning keynote address, include allowing callers to choose between waiting to speak to a live agent with estimated wait times provided and offering a callback option. Others include never requiring callers to repeat information previously provided during the call and providing a simple call rating mechanism. It is important to note, however, that industry analysts have suggested some of these proposed standards in the past, but many companies continue to grapple with incorporating such initiatives into their customer facing strategies.

The gethuman project team will accept community feedback during a comment period of 60 days. After that time period the team will incorporate the feedback into the standards and publish a final design document. Companies will then be able to register their gethuman-compliant phone service at www.gethuman.com and adopt the gethuman "earcon," an auditory icon that informs callers that the company deploys best practice service standards.

During English's Monday keynote he highlighted a very personal experience; his father is experiencing some health issues which make using IVRs challenging. For instance, if he had a question about his phone bill, "the machine couldn't understand him, he couldn't understand the machine," English said. "He had difficulty punching in 16 digits when they asked him to enter his account code. My father called me and asked me if I could place his phone calls for him. It just ripped my heart out." Perhaps announcements like these will change the service experience for people like English's father.

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