Giving Applications a True Voice

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2007-01-22 Print this article Print

Vendors are embedding voice-driven features in their products--and boosting users' efficiency.

Everywhere you look today, you see small instances of voice technology being embedded in commercial applications. One example is an e-mail service that peppers its messages with links that can automatically place calls to a wide range of click-to-talk modules, which are becoming increasingly popular on Web sites. For the most part, however, embedding voice technology within major commercial applications has eluded us because of the difficulties associated with building those types of applications.

But that's all changing as we start the new year. For example, Cisco and Citrix are collaborating to bring click-to-talk features to a broad range of applications served through Citrix Presentation Server. The Citrix product runs the client portion of applications such as Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes and SAP R/3 on a server that end users access via a thin client on their machine. For many I.T. organizations, Presentation Server is a critical tool that helps them rein in I.T. management costs by limiting the amount of code they run on clients.

This quarter, Cisco plans to roll out an offering that integrates its voice-over-Internet Protocol technology with Presentation Server to allow customers to embed VoIP directly within any number of existing applications. The ability to do this should significantly increase the value of these applications for end users because more often than not, the true worth of the information is not in the data residing in the application itself, but rather in the context that can normally be ascertained only by talking to another human being. In the Cisco context, this means people will be able to use their PCs and headsets as "soft phones" to quickly contact anyone inside or outside the organization, long before any of the other software vendors get around to embedding that capability into their own applications.

And for many users, the ability to speak with other users through an application is transforming their everyday work experience. The city of Winter Park, Fla., already uses a Citrix smart agent in a number of applications tied to the city's use of Microsoft's Active Directory.

According to Parsram Rajaram, Winter Park's senior systems analyst, users of the city's applications can not only quickly find out who knows more about the data they are looking at on the screen, but can also more easily collaborate by contacting that person without having to leave the application to look up and dial the number. In addition, the city made the phone more useful by creating a visual voice-mail application that lets users stop, play and reverse their voice-mail messages when accessed through a PC application.

This may all seem like coddling the user, but voice-over-IP is a major strategic application development thrust for both Google and Microsoft. For example, Google includes among its ranks Mike Cohen, a co-founder of Nuance Communications, which helped pioneer the use of VoIP. Although Google isn't saying what Cohen is working on, one could surmise from his presence at the company that Google is looking to spur a new era of collaboration by integrating voice support within its search environment and Google Docs offering.

If you take Google's ambitions together with Microsoft's aim to run VoIP on the new Vista operating system by the second half of 2007, applications that don't integrate VoIP might seem decidedly old hat to the user base by mid-2008. And that's only the beginning. In the not-too-distant future, the applications themselves will not only let you talk through them but to them as well, once a new generation of context-sensitive speech engines that recognize the meanings of different sets of words finally work their way through the application development process. Naturally, the processing power needed to deliver this level of speech recognition will probably limit the technology at first to applications such as online gaming that can throw tons of computing cycles to support them.

Within a few years of that breakthrough, however, people will come to expect programs such as spreadsheets that leverage a library of best practices to tell them how to balance the books without going to prison. But we should be well into the next decade before that capability becomes an everyday experience.


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