Sun makes move in voice recognition

The company is escalating its feud with Microsoft with the introduction of a new line of voice recognition products for telephone companies.

Sun Microsystems escalated its feud with Microsoft on Wednesday when it introduced a new line of voice recognition products for telephone companies.

Sun introduced "VoiceTone," which carriers can add to their phone networks to offer cell phone customers voice-activated dialing and have their e-mails read to them over the phone. Bellsouth, a telephone service provider with 46 million customers, is using the equipment, Sun said Wednesday.

Sun isn't the first to sell this kind of equipment. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, Nortel Networks and Comverse Technology have been selling similar equipment for at least a year. Wireless carriers AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS already use voice recognition software to offer services like voice dialing. But analysts think Sun's entry into this arena is a major landmark, although long overdue.

"For a player with this much business, they were a little late in recognizing this market exists and bringing their guns," said Mark Plakias, an analyst for voice and wireless technologies, at the Kelsey Group. "But there hasn't been that much to sell to. They haven't missed the opportunity."

By 2005, analysts believe the market for selling voice recognition equipment to automakers, business owners or telephone companies will balloon to about $4 billion.

Sun's VoiceTone products are also the company's way of trying to one-up Microsoft's own efforts to enter the voice recognition software market, according to Dan Hawkins, who investigates the voice recognition software business for industry analyst Datamonitor.

"These guys have a history of going at each other," he said.

Sun and Microsoft have been feuding for years. They sell rival operating systems for business computers that power the Internet. The two clash over competing e-business software that companies use to build Web sites. Their rivalry even extends to office productivity software, with Sun pushing StarOffice as an alternative to Microsoft's popular Office.

A Microsoft-backed group of companies known as The Salt Forum in October asked an international standards body to recognize a standard way for voice software equipment to work together. The Sun equipment relies on VoiceXML, which most people in the industry use.

Sun's new products are aimed at carriers emerging from a terrible financial year that pushed some, such as Sprint, to restructure their finances. Plakias says he expects carriers to jump-start their plans to add voice recognition services later this year, when carriers are expected to show signs of recovery.