Giving voice to customer service: Page 3

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VXML: A Web standard for telephone-based speech applications?

What if a telephone-based Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) customer-service application could be developed as a standards-based extension of an existing e-commerce Web site? That's the goal of the emerging Voice eXtensible Markup Language (VoiceXML or VXML).

Founded by AT&T Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., and Motorola Inc. in March 1999, the VXML Forum (www.vxmlforum.org) seeks to provide a platform that will enable Web developers to code voice prompts, call flows, and other key elements of ASR systems for telephony as intuitively as they write HTML. If the open standard works as promised, IT shops will be able to save development time and money on ASR systems since VXML-based and HTML-based applications can share critical databases with relative ease.

Before the VXML Forum was announced, the three founders and new key partner IBM Corp. had competed to develop their own markup languages to voice-enable Web applications. Motorola, for one, announced its VoxML voice programming language in September 1998 and trumpeted deployments at Web sites including Weather.com (The Weather Channel), CBS MarketWatch.com, and Biztravel.com. Web-based telephony applications might, for example, let consumers call an 800 number and speak the name of a city to listen to the local weather forecast, or get stock quotes by speaking the company name without having to know ticker symbols and enter them via telephone keypad.

With four key players joining forces under the VXML flag, more than 60 vendors have followed suit. Leading speech vendors supporting VXML include Dragon Systems Inc., Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., Nuance Communications Inc., Philips Electronics North America Corp., and SpeechWorks Inc. Computer and networking heavyweights 3Com Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Novell Inc., and Sun Microsystems Inc. have also given the standard a nod.

The VXML Forum released a preliminary spec for the standard in August 1999. Proponents would like to see VXML become the ultimate thin client for ubiquitous Internet access. Time will tell whether the Forum can keep its own act together, stave off any potential competing standards, and demonstrate that ASR telephony applications based on VXML can generate profits. --J.R.



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