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Web speech effort gets Microsoft boost

The software titan shows off a toolkit for building voice-powered Web applications; a Microsoft-backed voice group changes its rules to drum up more members.

Microsoft is making a double-barreled effort to trigger new action on a flagging Web speech specification.

The software titan has commissioned demonstrations of its toolkit for building voice-powered Web applications; a Microsoft-backed group responsible for the technology has changed its rules to drum up more members.

Microsoft said that it has paid Vertigo Software to produce demonstrations of the second test version of Microsoft's Speech Software Development Kit (SDK), for which the company started taking orders in October as part of its .Net initiative for providing applications and services online.

The demonstrations, available from Microsoft's Web site, show how developers can use the toolkit to add voice to their Web pages and applications.

"One of the constraints on this technology is that it's been difficult to program speech applications," said James Mastan, representative for Microsoft's speech technologies group. "The languages have been proprietary, the tools have not been good, and the knowledge of being able to develop them has been held by a small number of people."

To demonstrate the comparative ease with which developers could add speech to their pages and applications, Microsoft hired Vertigo--a Web development company with no experience in speech interfaces, according to Microsoft--to add a speech component to two applications. Vertigo was not available for comment.

"Our tools, which integrate with Visual Studio.Net, give developers drag-and-drop controls and other graphical tools, and let developers work in a way that they are familiar with," Mastan said. "The key point is that it's not that hard to do, and if you're a Web developer, you already have the skill sets to do this."

The SALT Forum, founded 18 months ago by six companies including Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Philips Electronics and Intel, has not seen widespread adoption of its specification, which consists a handful of Extensible Markup Languge (XML) tags. On Monday, the group announced a change in its membership policy that would make its structure more democratic.

The forum, which until now took orders from the six founding members, will now recognize a "sponsor" membership class with voting rights on the board of directors, and "contributors" will be able to vote in the working groups. "Adopters" will not gain any voting rights, but will maintain access to materials the forum develops.

The group said it was changing its rules in response to requests by both existing and potential members. It currently lists 65 members in addition to the founders.

In July, the forum submitted its SALT 1.0 specification to the Multimodal Interaction Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). SALT technology will be incorporated into the next version of the W3C's VoiceXML specification, the W3C said in January when it issued VoiceXML as a candidate recommendation, the penultimate stage in the W3C's recommendation process.

But one company specializing in phone-based Web applications downplayed the significance of SALT and of Microsoft's tools for it, saying the technology was tailored for Microsoft's products and did not address any broad market demand.

"SALT is really designed very specifically for Microsoft's needs, which is that they want to be able to add voice capabilities to Internet Explorer both on the desktop and on their PDAs," said Brad Porter, platform architect at Tellme Networks in Mountain View, Calif., whose clients include Toll-Free Directory Assistance, American Airlines and AT&T Wireless. "It has very simple features for voice recognition and playing audio, but what SALT doesn't do is complex interactions back and forth with the user."

Porter, an editor of VoiceXML at the W3C, also downplayed the importance of the W3C's interest in SALT.

"Our group is not working on a new version of SALT," said Porter. "We're working on merging a number of different technologies."

The SALT Forum said that on Wednesday it will offer more SALT demonstrations via a Microsoft-sponsored Webcast, including a Vocalocity browser and a plug-in for Macromedia's Dreamweaver Web authoring tool by Voice Web Solutions. On May 1, it will show an open-source SALT browser developed at Carnegie Mellon University.