Accustomed to using your PC to get information like what's on the menu at
that cool new restaurant or a current stock quote? What do you do when
you're on the road and your PC isn't readily available? Over the next few
years, the solution will be to call a voice portal.
Voice portals put all kinds of information at your fingertips anytime,
anywhere. You just dial into the 800 number of your chosen voice portal and
it quickly guides you to the information you need. You only have to answer
with simple voice responses -- there's no need to type in your menu
selections. This makes voice portals easy to use, even while driving. The
process is no different from browsing the Web on your PC, and you can do it
from your office, cellular, or home phone.
As mentioned in this column
in March, the idea of voice-enabled browsing, or voice portals (as these
companies like to call themselves), is quickly coming into its own. Fueling
the growth of these applications is the widespread use of wireless devices.
How big will voice portals be? Many industry players expect billions of
dollars in commerce revenues through voice portals by 2003. According to an
April 2000 Forrester Research report
on speech recognition, TellMe Networks
claims that annual revenues from voice-driven commerce could reach -- or
even exceed -- $450 billion by 2003. That's three times the projected amount
for online retail sales in the same year.
What Is It?
In simple terms, a voice portal is a public network service that enables
customers to access information residing on the Internet or an intranet
through a telephone interface. It uses automatic speech recognition,
text-to-speech software, and prerecorded information to let callers navigate
a Web site and retrieve information (HTML or HDML, voice XML or XML) using
the phone. Some voice portals also add features like unified messaging and
push-to-talk buttons, which themselves are evolving into separate market
Why A Voice Portal?
The whole idea behind voice portals is to extend Internet information
anytime, anywhere, through the cheapest and most universally available
access device, the telephone. Voice portals are an easy, efficient, and
cost-effective way to access the Internet.
Integrating IP telephony technology, plus recent improvements in speech
recognition technology, are clearly driving the vision of voice portals to
reality. Enterprises can increase their efficiency by sharing resources
between Web portal and voice portal applications. Voice portals can be
easily integrated with existing ERP, enterprise data exchange (EDI), and
other database systems to create an effective communication vehicle.
Building A Voice Portal
There are many factors to consider when you're building a voice portal.
Traditionally, voice portals are designed with either multiple data centers
and local access numbers or a single data center with one access number. The
first approach increases costs because of the need to set up and maintain
multiple data centers. The second increases the cost of the 800 number.
IP telephony provides a hybrid approach that reduces costs significantly.
By using IP gateways, a voice portal can have a single data center, reducing
setup and maintenance costs. It can team up with an IXC or CLEC, who can
provide the IP backbone to transport calls from multiple national or
international locations to the main data center. In this case, the IP
gateway is co-hosted at a local CLEC or IXC site to provide local access.
Using hosting services can help achieve high reliability with significant
cost savings. There are many hosting services (for example, Intel Online
Services, Exodus, and Global Center) that guarantee high system reliability
and provide real estate, network infrastructure, and security for a small
fraction of what it would cost to set up your own data center.
The scalability requirement for a voice portal is no different than for
any Web portal. How well voice portals succeed will depend on how well users
accept this new idea. The port density-to-user ratio will depend on the
number of users and the time users spend at a voice portal.
To succeed, a voice portal needs these four key elements:
- Content organized for easy browsing;
- Content that is concise enough to be quickly delivered over the phone
- Accurate voice input using automatic speech recognition (ASR) in
addition to DTMF input;
- High-quality recorded speech prompts or text-to-speech (TTS)
technology to convert Web pages into speech.
The first two components are more of an art than a science. The last two
will be determined by the ASR and TTS technologies being used. The best
voice portals will combine art and science to deliver all four key
Finally, it is essential to remember that voice portals are targeted at
telephone users, who are accustomed to high reliability and will expect the
same from voice portals. Reliable, scalable systems with easy-to-use
interfaces are absolutely crucial for users to accept voice portals. In the
short run, IP telephony and hosting services can significantly reduce voice
portal costs. Over the long run, continued advancements in ASR and TTS
technology and the adoption of voice XML will help determine whether voice
portals become the next big way to do business.
Jim Machi is director, product management, CT Server and IPT Products,
for Dialogic Corporation (an Intel company). Dialogic is a leading
manufacturer of high-performance, standards-based computer telephony
components. Dialogic products are used in fax, data, voice recognition,
speech synthesis, and call center management CT applications. For more
information, visit the Dialogic Web site at www.dialogic.com.
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