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Please speak after the tone

There are interesting opportunities that don't necessarily require new devices or killer apps.

Twelve months in the software industry is an eternity. This time last year we were reporting tremendous interest in consumer devices. The question of whether alternative devices would take off was referring to feature, function sets, not financial viability. Recently at technology-centric Comdex, the organizers were holding their heads in their hands as they considered the fallout from 400 fewer exhibitors, zero growth in attendees from last years post 9/11 base, and a third quarter loss of over USD 300m.

Now this "might" not be a simple rejection of new technology, gadgets, gizmos, devices and hardware, but it sure looks like it. Further it reflects the reports of slashed budgets, the huge emphasis on cost reduction and the entirely reasonable focus on return on investment for its own sake.

The cheapest device we already have
Whilst the industry would like us all to invest in new gizmos, there's one device that we all, already have. In fact most of us probably already have several of them - the humble, ubiquitous telephone. And when times are tough, excuse the motherhood and apple pie, necessity is often the mother of invention. So just imagine if your existing telephone, or better still your customers' or your employees' telephones could play a meaningful part in well structured business processes?

Like most people I have been ignoring speech technology. It's a bit like artificial intelligence or the object database, it's one of those technologies that came and went but never really made it. But I will confess that recently I had to admit that I was out of date. Not an easy admission for someone who is supposed to know all about the next big thing before everyone else.

Speech gets interesting
Interesting fact one: Speech in generic application such as word processing is not relevant to enterprise business processes. It's still too hard to do because it requires huge vocabularies, language and dialect interpretation and a high tolerance of variation. But speech recognition can achieve high levels of accuracy if the recognition only requires recognition of closely managed, specific phrases which will be in a specific language. Which is all you need for business process interaction.

Interesting fact two: Standards activity is in work that will deliver XML based protocols that will underpin cross industry agreement on voice based interoperability mechanisms. For example standards based voice browsers that act as two way voice transformation engines.

Interesting fact three: If you have XML based meta data to describe speech based process components, you can consider creating standard libraries of speech components that can be assembled together in different ways to create custom processes. Further if these can be delivered as components, why shouldn't they be delivered as services? With all the benefits of implementation transparency that model implies.

Now let's talk economics
Like me you probably HATE making a call to a call center. They are almost always going to play music for at least 10 minutes, and the chances are that when you eventually get through, you are going to be told to call another, nameless person on another number because the nameless department you called first doesn't have access to the "central" customer database!

But pity the poor call center managers. They do not have sensible tools that allow them to dynamically manage the queue. The inflexible simplicity of the dial tone based system does not allow sophisticated screening that allows flexible queue management that reflects the type and class of customer, or the class of product or inquiry required.

Imagine however if the contents of the screening conversation could be managed dynamically as components, that were automatically rearranged depending on today's business rules, that allowed customers for specific flights, or products to be handled by particular queues. Or a customer's sale, debtor or inquiry history could be used to coordinate the queue, the customers and resources. Or that conversational elements could be acquired as Services and assembled into new business processes without expensive intervention of IT and developer staff.

In my report on voice components and services in the November, CBDI Journal I discuss the potential for voice based asset reuse, both as components and services. I then examine the opportunity to bring the type of technologies that are starting to become commonplace in Web service management to bear on this problem and the real potential to manage costs and quality of service in a very proactive manner.

This week at Comdex it seemed that the industry might be searching in vain for the killer application that might make the technology-based products sell in numbers that will revitalize the economy. Instead some of the technology seekers might be advised to look more closely at devices that are already deployed in vast numbers as a means of addressing core business issues. I acknowledge the insight of Netdecisions and Fluency Voice Technologies who brought me up to date on this subject.

Comments always appreciated to

Links and references:
CBDI Journal November 2002
Best Practice Report - Reusing Voice Components and Services
Premium content available to Gold and Silver CBDI Subscribers.

Copyright CBDi Forum Limited 2002. The CBDi Forum is an analysis firm and think tank, providing insight on component and web service technologies, processes and practices for the software industry and its customers. To register for the weekly newswire click here.

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