Bill Gates, Microsofts chairman and chief software architect, unveiled Speech Server 2004 during his keynote presentation at the co-located AVIOS SpeechTEK Spring 2004, VSLive! San Francisco 2004 and Microsoft Mobile Developers Conference events. Speech Server 2004, the newest addition to the Windows Server System, marks Microsofts entry into the enterprise speech technology market.
"Speech really is something people believe in," Gates said. "Theyve seen a lot of optimism and are wondering when it will come into the mainstream. For a certain set of applications, [speech] is in the mainstream with this release."
Speech Server 2004 includes Microsofts own speech-recognition engine, ScanSoft Inc.s Speechify text-to-speech engine and a development kit for building speech applications with Visual Studio .Net. While the server software will be available in early April, developers currently can download Microsofts Speech Application Software Development Kit for Visual Studio, a company spokeswoman said.
Already, since the Speech Server beta began last year, developers have written about 1,000 speech applications, Gates said.
Gates said he thinks speech needs to extend to a full set of devices and to the Web and not be limited to telephone interactions. Speech Server 2004 itself offers bridges into telephony networks and into the Web so that speech interactions and those on a PC are better integrated, he said.
"The screen and the speech should not be separate roads," Gates said.
To take that concept further, Microsoft is working on moving speech recognition from the server and more directly in phones and PCs, Gates said. The company plans to develop a speech-dictation application, though Gates did not say when that would occur.
"Eventually, well think of the PC and phone as devices that we talk to," he said.
The Redmond, Wash., software maker also announced pricing for Speech Server 2004s two editions—a standard edition for small and midsize deployments and an enterprise edition for larger installations. The retail price is $7,999 per processor for the standard edition and $17,999 per processor for the enterprise edition, Microsoft announced.
Following Gates keynote, Kai-Fu Lee, corporate vice president for the Microsoft Speech Server product group, further detailed Speech Server 2004 at the SpeechTEK conference. He was joined by early speech customers including Grange Insurance Group, the New York City Department of Education and the Southwest Alabama Integrated Criminal Justice System. They are among more than 20 customers running applications on Speech Server 2004.
For example, the New York public school district uses Speech Server 2004 to make its student-information Web portal available to parents without access to a computer, said Richard Longford, deputy chief information officer for the citys Department of Education. The parents can retrieve information such as student attendance and transportation schedules over the phone, helping to "bridge that digital divide" between those with and without Internet access, he said.
"What we were able to do with Microsoft Speech Server was to take the lid off this [Web] application," Longford said. "We were able to put the speech application right on top of it."
A handful of Microsofts 60 partners also were expected to demonstrate their applications and services for Speech Server. Along with ScanSoft for text-to-speech, partners include Intervoice Inc. and Intel Corp. for telephony integration.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include more comments from the company and customers.