Microsoft Aims to Replace Dial Tones with Voice-Aware Services

When Microsoft introduced businesses last spring to its plan to attach its brand to virtually all digital voice communication, by inviting businesses to participate in the first stage of the assembly of a voice-automated "Unified Communications" platform, a majority of would-be interested parties did not take Microsoft too seriously.

Microsoft is not a company that appreciates not being taken seriously for very long, and this morning, it responded with all the vim and vigor of the Microsoft of old: by buying an established provider of such services outright.

Tellme Networks provides the world's principal platform for automated voice response services via telephone. Before you dismiss the value of such services out of hand, according to Microsoft's statistics, Tellme responded to more search requests via voice during 2006 than did Google and Yahoo combined to search requests via text. Today, Tellme is a part of Microsoft, by virtue of an acquisition deal announced this morning.

"We think telephone numbers are an artifact of technological limitation," remarked Microsoft Business Division President Jeff Raikes this morning, "and our goal is to try to move away from that, and have the experience be natural throughout the voice and unified communications area, whether it's the way you can click to connect with people, or the ability to use voice as a way to access people."

With the Tellme acquisition, Microsoft receives a crown jewel, whose value may not yet be truly realized: a working search platform that's already been deployed on the one communications device more ubiquitous than the Internet.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed - Tellme was privately held - nor were Microsoft and Tellme officials ready to discuss what happens with regard to the Tellme brand, its existing resources, and its employees. However, Tellme CEO Mike McCue did give some very upbeat signals this morning that his eight-year-old enterprise would not be dissolved - perhaps it can't be, since someone needs to run the phone search platform.

The newly-fused companies' joint goal (assuming regulatory affairs proceed without a hitch, probably within the next 90 days) will be, as McCue described, the construction of something they're calling "Dial Tone 2.0" - essentially, replacing the dial tone for all telephone service, including land lines and cellular, with an automated voice that asks its user a question.

"Right now, the phone has been relatively unchanged in decades," remarked McCue to reporters this morning. "You still pick it up today, and you hear two tones meshed together as the dial tone, and you have to type in a bunch of numbers to get something done or to reach somebody. We think that world is ripe for change; we think that when you pick up a phone, [it] should ask you, 'What do you want to do? Who do you want to call?' And you can say what you want: 'Call Mom at home.' 'Call Mike on his mobile phone.' You can say, 'Call Mike and Jeff,' and have a conference call immediately happen."

In three years' time, Raikes predicts, about 100 million people will have the capability to do quick voice-driven dialing ability, or "click-to-call," from within their everyday applications. He didn't name names, but there aren't that many names from which to choose when discussing Microsoft: He's probably talking about voice response as a common feature of the next generation of Microsoft applications, including Office.

BetaNews pressed Raikes on this question this morning. "What 'click-to-call' means is, take the Office Communicator capability that we offer today, the ability to initiate a voice call right from within the application that they're using," Raikes told BetaNews. "In that case, that would be a 'click,' but that also could be a voice command to initiate that call."

"Voice communications needs to get integrated into the context of how people do their work," Raikes continued, "and that's the direction we're going. We certainly see Tellme and their strength as a part of enhancing that overall direction." He added that while Microsoft had announced last year its development of communications-enabled business processes, Tellme was already doing them, including with its speech recognition platform. "You're going to see a wide range of integration of communications technologies into the fundamental information work productivity and business applications infrastructure."

Raikes repeated his statistic, first delivered at a VoiceCon convention last week, which alluded to a three-year timeframe for this level of integration. However, he declined to specify for BetaNews whether this 2010 suite of voice-capable applications would officially constitute the next version of Microsoft Office.

As McCue described to one reporter, one of the valuable parts of his company's platform that hasn't truly been appreciated is its learning ability. The Tellme platform learns how people talk by listening to them. The more people there are to listen to, the faster the platform may learn about speech idiosyncrasies, and the sooner it can adapt to new speech patterns.

"The more it's utilized by more people," said McCue, "the more it learns and the more it adapts, and it gets smarter and smarter...With tens of thousands of processes in the network, being able to process different speech utterances, last year alone, we did almost ten billion speech utterances. In other words, somebody said something to one of the applications on our platforms ten billion times last year. That has allowed us to make the speech platform smarter, better, and more capable."

Another reporter pointed out that Tellme was already in the business of leveraging voice recognition to provide security, particularly for authentication services. Would Microsoft be integrating voice-driven security into applications as well? Tellme's McCue's response made it sound like the security application was not on the table when the deal was negotiated.

"That's a technology that we've always been excited about," McCue remarked, "but it's still, you know, a little early. One of the things we're excited about is, now, we can really get a chance to work directly with the researchers at Microsoft, and start to advance the state of the art in voice verification and speech recognition overall. There's a tremendous amount of promise there, in being able to recognize someone based on their voice."

Does today's Tellme acquisition mean Microsoft's back on the warpath with regard to search services, perhaps hunting for new acquisitions?

Jeff Raikes would not say no, and in fact, hinted that this acquisition may not be a stand-alone. Though he started by giving reporters the usual boilerplate text about Microsoft always considering acquisitions, he closed his comment with what appeared to be an intriguing dash of smoke and mirrors. "We don't have anything specific to announce at this point in time beyond Tellme," he said, "because Tellme's the 'Star of the Day."'

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