Microsoft Promoting Speech as the Next Touch

Although Microsoft integrated touch-screen capabilities into Windows 7, at least one Microsoft executive suggests that the next stage in user interaction is speech-recognition technology as applied to various everyday applications. Although Microsoft is busily developing uses for voice IT, it likely faces future competition from the likes of Google and Apple, both of which have developed their own voice-activated features, primarily for smartphones.

Microsoft may have heavily touted its PC manufacturing partners' touch-screen technology at its recent Windows 7 launch, but the company is also exploring what it portrays as the next logical step: integrating speech-recognition technology into applications.

"Voice is the new touch," Zig Serafin, general manager of the Speech at Microsoft Group, said in comments posted on Microsoft's Website. "It's the natural evolution from keyboards and touch screens. Today, speech is rapidly becoming an expected part of our everyday experience across a variety of devices."

As with touch-screen functionality, speech technology has been under development at Microsoft for more than a decade. The acquisition of Tellme Networks in 2007, and the folding of that company's team into the Speech at Microsoft group, also provided a boost in the development of Microsoft voice-enabled products, which now include Bing for Mobile, Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows 7.

The Tellme platform operates on the VoiceXML standard, and recently added an Outbound IVR (Interactive Voice Response) Service, which offers interactive outbound messages-letting customers do things like reschedule delivery of a package in response to an automated call.

Tellme's voice-activated user interface has found its way into Windows-powered smartphones, notably the Samsung Intrepid, allowing users to dictate text messages instead of typing them in. Users can also search the Web via voice.

An offshoot of voice technology has also been integrated into Exchange Server 2010, which can send to a user's inbox a short transcription (or "text preview," in Microsoft's parlance) of a voice mail message. The benefits of Voice Mail Preview will be discussed in detail when Microsoft launches Exchange Server 2010 at TechEd Europe in Berlin between Nov. 9 and 13.

Microsoft's partners have been integrating Windows 7's voice capability into their own offerings. Hewlett-Packard's TouchSmart PCs include an application called TouchSmart RecipeBox that lets chefs navigate through an on-screen recipe by voice command without needing to touch a screen or keyboard with messy hands.

The future will only deepen the level of interaction between voice and software, according to Serafin.

"The climate in our R&D environment," Serafin is quoted as saying on Microsoft's site, "is optimally charged to accelerate advances, leverage the power of software plus services and revolutionize the ways customers interact with a wide range of Microsoft products."

That means developing speech technology even further for everyday use, but also watching what other competitors in the space are doing.

Companies have been making robust strides into the voice IT space as of late. Google included search-by-voice functionality for Android in February, providing the same application for RIM BlackBerry immediately thereafter. Users can also search Google Maps by voice, at least on Android-equipped devices.

Apple has also been exploring voice-activated applications, most notably with the iPhone and its Voice Control feature, which allows the user to ask the phone which song is playing or tell it to make a phone call from a contacts list.

Whether these features actually help various devices gain market share, or remain an interesting sideshow to form factors otherwise dominated by touch screens and physical keyboards, remains to be seen. As the technology evolves, though, the marketplace for voice-activated features will likely become far more crowded.