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Voice, Reborn

For the past several years, we've seen a definite shift away from voice-based communications. Plenty of data points, such as the rise of first email then messaging, the decline of voicemail, and even the increased popularity of omnichannel within contact centers.

Voice is considered inconvenient. It requires the area be quiet in order to hear the other end and privacy to avoid being overheard and/or minimize disrupting others. Voice communications also require all parties participate at the same time. Messaging eliminates those requirements and offers the benefit of a conversation log.

Hold the phone... that's all wrong. Suddenly, voice is back... but now we call it speech. Speech offers a more intuitive, natural interface that's easier to use than keyboards or mice.

These trends may appear contradictory, but are more often complementary -- as in dictating a text message. The new voice is more about how we interact with machines, not each other. Talking to computers (and robots) has been a mainstay of science fiction for a very long time, and thanks to recent breakthroughs in natural language processing it's becoming a viable reality.

Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all competing for leadership in voice (I love that sentence). Natural language interfaces hit mainstream awareness in October 2011 with Siri on the then-new iPhone 4s.

Mainstream adoption increased momentum in 2015 when Amazon launched its Echo device, the reigning champ. Amazon nailed it with a standalone appliance concept, and has demonstrated its ability to monetize speech in several ways: voice-enabled sales, device sales, and revenue from speech platform services.

Now Google is on it too; it just managed to sell six million home speakers (more than one a second!) during the holiday shopping season. Forrester predicts that up to 51% of U.S. households will have a smart speaker by 2022.

Third parties can integrate with these appliances to create voice-enabled user interfaces for just about anything. Amazon calls its APIs "skills" and has amassed about 30,000 of them for Alexa. For the third consecutive year, Alexa-enabled is one of the most prevalent themes at CES, taking place this week.

While the consumer market is exploding with options, the enterprise market is just beginning to take shape. Microsoft offers Cortana as a speech assistant integrated across many of its applications. It reports 145 million monthly active Cortana users. Other enterprise-oriented speech solutions include IBM Watson and Cisco's recently announced Spark Assistant.

The technology is new and somewhat disruptive. The keyboard, mouse, and GUI have been the norm for three decades now. There are now two simultaneous challenges: identifying business use cases that are more intuitive with speech, and then selecting the right platform or ecosystem for building such interfaces or applications. Amazon appears to have its sights on the enterprise. It has recently announced Alexa for Business to encourage corporate customers and enterprise suppliers to build out Alexa skills, and is putting Alexa into PCs.

This year at Enterprise Connect we intend to highlight some of the most innovative speech-enabled solutions relating to communications and collaboration (see my earlier No Jitter post, "A Word Please: Speech Tech Focus of 2018 Innovation Showcase"). The speech solutions can be based on any technology as long as they're triggered by sound. Speech applications can be active or passive, listening for commands or analyzing conversations for sentiment and other characteristics.

As every year, the Innovation Showcase seeks to highlight vendors and solutions that haven't previously exhibited at Enterprise Connect. The solutions can be standalone applications or tied into a broader ecosystem. Click here to learn more about the Innovation Showcase and submit an entry.

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Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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