Voice Commands, Singapore Style

Here’s more on voice recognition replacing touch-tone menus. Is it a good thing?

ScanSoft have teamed up today with Unified Communications –  ’the leading provider of proprietary telecommunication solutions in Asia’ — to launch OneVoice, a ‘voice portal application’ for Singapore Telecommunications Limited (SingTel). OneVoice is a speech-activated service that uses ScanSoft’s SpeechWorks speech recognition and text-to-speech software to allow SingTel subscribers to ‘dial their personal contacts or public establishments, access useful information and carry out their personal information management’.

What does this mean exactly? By dialing *988 or *6988, SingTel customers can access stuff using simple speech commands. Speaking a name already stored in their personal address book would enable them to reach that person. They could also ‘request sports and lottery results, download ringtones, picture messages and logos, utilize location-based services to find the nearest amenities and recommended food outlets’.

The basic idea seems to be to replace navigating a touch-tone menu of options or scrolling through an address book on a cell phone. Not a bad idea, and you’re not replacing real people here but actually adding another layer of usability. (Of course Nokia and several other makes of handphone have the speech option already, where you just speak a name and the phone will dial, but that requires setting up, and I’ve seen more people get embarrassed when it dials by mistake than I have folk getting some serious use from it.)

The downsides I can think of are limited to the idea of storing all your data on a central server. But then again, the cellphone company is going to know all that stuff anyway, so who cares? The only other thing I can think of is the annoying problem of your voice not being recognised.

Which brings me to my only question, a cultural one: Is ScanSoft’s voice recognition software geared towards Singaporean-style English, or a more generic one? Or both? Watch this space.

Is It Back To Basics For The PDA?

What do you want in a PDA? The Register carries a story that seems to belie the conventional wisdom that folk want everything in one device. It quotes Jupiter Research as saying that vendors are getting it wrong by focusing on the high-end, convergent devices, when actually they should be looking at the low-end, just-give-me the basics, market. “The adoption of portable devices increases as their size and complexity of use decreases,” the Jupiter report says.

But on closer inspection the report’s not just saying that folk want a basic PDA. It’s saying that basic PDAs will remain the core of sales, but will gradually be taken over by phones that offer those same functions. This is the market’s “sweet spot for handhelds”, it says, where untis offer voice (read telephone), personal information management, or a combination of the two, ditching other integrated functions. By other integrated functions it means game play, playing music, that kind of stuff.

The figures seem to back this up: They show pretty low — 7% — penetration of the U.S. market. Jupiter forecasts a U.S. installed base of handheld PDAs will number just over 14 million at the end of 2003 and will only grow to 20 million by 2008.

I think on the whole they’re probably right. Extra bits and pieces just tend to make things go wrong, and if the machine goes wrong, and you have to send it off for repairs, you’re stumped. On the other hand, no mention is made of cameras, an area where I do think both PDAs and phones are going to see strong growth (see my column in FEER — subscription required). But I also believe there are other add-ons which are useful: Good voice recording — not just short memos, but a proper voice recorder that can store several hours of conversation — is useful for your modern thrusting exec (or journalist like moi).

Still, I think Jupiter have a point. Most folk I know just want something they can store their stuff on, and maybe check email in the office. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi etc: They’re all nice to have, but let’s face it, most people won’t use them. And given that ordinary PDAs are getting cheaper by the minute — fellow Jupiter analyst Avi Greenhart recently spotted the Palm basic Zire model for $43 at Best Buy — why bother going for the high-end stuff?