What Tellme (Microsoft) is up to


It was big news when Microsoft scooped up Tellme in 2007 for a rumored $800 million. Not only did the acquisition highlight the Redmond software giant’s foray into speech recognition technology, but also its willingness to pour money into modern UI research and development. Speech recognition, by any application, is just another way for the user to interact with a system. Unlike other speech recognition vendors, Tellme did not concentrate on contact center applications, but provides solutions in telephony, Web, and mobile applications. It’s no wonder that Microsoft, being a software shop, was interested.

Fast forward to 2010 and TMCnet has an interview with Grant Shirk, Director of Industry Solutions at Tellme Business Solutions, who shares some information on what the future holds for Tellme. Some tidbits of particular interest to me:

In addition to the emergence of distributed computing platforms for speech recognition, we expect to see more IVR services moving into the network as businesses seek the performance improvements and lower costs that on-demand platforms can provide. Virtualization of queuing and routing is a logical next step that can drive higher agent utilization within the contact center and reduce the cost and necessity of standalone CTI services. Tellme expects this virtualization to also improve the customer experience by getting callers to the right agent at the right time (avoiding unnecessary transfers) and enabling the growth of innovative services like virtual hold and scheduled call backs.

It appears that all divisions within Microsoft are aligning to its Azure cloud platform, from Office to SQL Server to Tellme speech recognition. But is Microsoft playing catch-up? Google has had its cloud-based Apps forever. Voxeo and several other IVR vendors lead in cloud-based IVRs. And unfortunately for Tellme, virtual hold and scheduled call backs are old, old news…

But there’s hope:

Together with Ford Motor Company and Kia, Microsoft and the Tellme platform pioneered the use of network-based speech to drive in-car experiences with the Ford SYNC product, and Kia with UVO (your voice), both profiled at CES and SpeechTEK 2009. The Ford SYNC service accesses the Tellme platform to provide drivers with hands-free access to local business search, driving directions, and other information. We expect to see more manufacturers moving toward a network-based model in the near future.

In addition, speech is quickly becoming an integral part of the mobile device interface. A great example that showcases the power of speech and language processing technologies is the recently launched Bing Mobile client. To provide mobile users the best possible speech performance for these advanced tasks, the speech features need to take advantage of network-based (rather than embedded) recognition capabilities.

Now this is what I think Microsoft Tellme will be the leader of the pack. Ford SYNC is one of the features that distinguishes Ford automobiles from its competitors. Considering how Ford has come back to be profitable again, perhaps it also has Microsoft to thank. Although some geeks have joked that they’d rather not encounter the BSOD in their cars, SYNC is clearly something that car manufacturers believe in, and we should not be surprised to see such in-car voice-activated driver assistance platforms to be ubiquitous in the near future.

The future seems bright:

Tellme continues to drive momentum and significant interest in the adoption of the Microsoft speech engine. In 2009, we answered over 1.3 billion calls (nearly 50 percent of our total annual traffic) on this engine, and our clients are observing significant improvements in recognition accuracy, automation, and task completion across their applications. The average task completion improvement when moving to the new engine has been three percent on average, out of the box.

The close relationship between the delivery and R&D teams within the Speech at Microsoft group allows us to continually influence the evolution and enhancement of the speech engine to best meet the evolving needs of our customers.

The key is the close relationship with R&D. If anything, Microsoft is a gigantic R&D machine: consistently spends over $6 billion annually since 2005. With that type of R&D backing, it’s all but certain that Tellme will continue to have a major impact in speech recognition technology in general, not limited to just contact center applications.

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