What's All the Talk About?

In the March 14 edition of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I provided a detailed discussion about Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) applications and microbrowsers, finishing with a brief look at the Mobile Internet Toolkit (MIT). As I demonstrated, WAP applications can be effective; however, if a user doesn't have a WAP-enabled device or can't view an application (e.g., while driving), then voice Internet applications might be preferable. In this edition of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I look more closely at the key features, deployment procedures, and functionality of voice Internet applications.

Voice Internet applications are near-natural-language voice interfaces for accessing various data sources—you can perform all application interactions by talking to the application. Many people ask me whether voice Internet applications are similar to interactive voice response (IVR) systems (e.g., in which you press 1 for Sales, 2 for Customer Support). The answer is yes and no: Yes, you access the application over the phone line, but no, the features are quite different. Voice Internet applications' key features and benefits are as follows:

  • Because voice Internet applications aren't hierarchical, users can randomly access application features by simply speaking the name of the feature they need.
  • Users can manipulate the application completely through voice commands (e.g., "Back," "Help," "Start over," "Main menu").
  • You can use VoiceXML tags and grammar (standardized industry technology) to write voice Internet applications, which are nonproprietary. For more information, see the URL at the end of this list.
  • You can use standard Web development technology and techniques (e.g., Active Server Pages—ASP, ASP.NET, Cold Fusion, JavaServer Pages—JSP) to develop applications and leverage existing application components and business logic.
  • You can deploy applications on any standard Web server (e.g., Microsoft IIS, Apache) without any additional configuration.
  • Application updates are easy. You don't need to pay a technology vendor for expensive proprietary updates.
    http://www.w3c.org/voice

To access a voice Internet application, you need a Voice Browser that runs the voice application, controls the call flow, performs voice recognition, and returns audio output in the form of WAV files and Text-To-Speech (TTS). Although you can rapidly develop voice Internet applications, Voice Browser costs can be high. If you host the Voice Browser inhouse, the necessary hardware and software can cost $30,000 to $80,000. If you use a voice application service provider (ASP), expect to pay 10 to 15 cents per minute. Compared with the cost of existing IVR technology, however, the operational costs of a voice Internet application can be significantly less because of the standardized approach.

What kind of voice Internet applications are most successful today? Like the WAP applications I discussed in the March 14 edition of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, voice Internet applications aren't suited to extensive data input. Voice Internet applications are best suited to information-retrieval applications—for example, checking email, accessing the corporate directory, and finding directions. Many consumer-oriented voice Internet applications are available for checking weather, consumer email, stock quotes, and so on. The most compelling way to use voice Internet applications is for personal-assistant functionality. For example, imagine speaking the following sample sentences into your PDA:

  • "Call John Smith's cell phone from the corporate directory."
  • "What are my appointments this afternoon?"
  • "Check for urgent email messages from my boss."

This functionality is notable for its acceptance of full sentences. The system captures key words from your verbal input, then processes the information.

Voice Internet applications have huge potential for a variety of uses. If you want to start developing a voice Internet application, visit the following URLs for more information, examples, free Voice Browser services for developers, and other resources:
http://community.voxeo.com
http://cafe.bevocal.com
http://developer.tellme.com
http://developer.voicegenie.com

Also, if you or your company has deployed a voice Internet application, let me know about the solution. I want to keep track of what's happening in the industry.

In the next regular edition of the Mobile & Wireless UPDATE on April 11, I'll look at the core features and functionality of eMbedded Pocket PC applications.

Until next time,
Steve Milroy, steve@milroy.com