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Oracle to voice-enable its application software

Oracle says it plans to voice-enable its applications software across its platforms, including Oracle 9i, Oracle E-Business Suite, OracleMobile Online Studio and Oracle JDeveloper.

As an addendum to CEO Larry Ellison's comments during last month's Wingcast telematics conference call, Oracle is announcing what it calls "comprehensive support for the creation and deployment of voice-enabled services across its technology and applications software."

Oracle says it is supporting voice so that developers will be able to create and deploy applications that can be accessed through any interface -- Web, wireless or voice. Voice support will over time become a component of all Oracle software and services, including Oracle 9i, Oracle E-Business Suite, OracleMobile Online Studio and Oracle JDeveloper.

Oracle is hoping its broad commitment to support voice access to information will accelerate adoption of the technology in the corporate enterprise and attract developers and applications to its software platforms.

The voice access industry is generating a lot of hype at the moment -- hype that is backed up by radically diverse forecasts of how much the market will be worth, ranging between $1.6 billion and $40 billion by 2005.

Oracle's 9i Application Server (Oracle9iAS) Wireless will be one of the first pieces of software to offer integrated voice support, said Jacob Christfort, OracleMobile's chief technical officer and vice president of product development. Oracle9iAS voice access software will be available by November.

IBM already offers an end-to-end voice solution tied into its WebSphere business applications server. But Oracle argues that, by connecting software from partners such as Nuance, SpeechWorks and General Magic to its communications software and server platform, it provides a more "standard" way of implementing the functionality.

Even with VoiceXML, a language used to voice-enable Web sites, there is at present no process to ensure that applications are interoperable: one company's VoiceXML application doesn't necessarily work with another's. Oracle claims it is the first major application server and software company to attempt to provide a standard platform that enables all voice access software to work together.

Oracle said Oracle9iAS Wireless will support automatic speech recognition and text-to-speech engines from Nuance and SpeechWorks, as well as voice gateways and telephony platforms from General Magic, Intel, Motorola, Verascape, VoiceGenie and others. For companies that wish to outsource development and deployment to a third-party vendor, Oracle is working with Vail Systems.

OracleMobile Online Studio will include functionality for developing and testing voice applications to be deployed as online services. And with the upcoming release of Oracle JDeveloper, developers will be able to build, test and debug wireless and voice applications within an integrated development environment.

Enterprises are interested in using voice services to cut customer care costs, said Christfort. It costs a company much less to handle customer calls with an automated voice service than with a customer service representative, he explained. On corporate networks, VoiceXML-enabled software will eventually let sales people access their company's corporate network, for instance to check on the status of a customer's order.

The problem so far has been that the services have been expensive to build because of a lack of standard development tools and skill sets, such as those that exist for Java, Visual Basic and XML. By supporting and integrating voice access technology into its own offerings, Oracle enables customers to choose any voice platform or several, without worrying about interoperability, Christfort said.

Although VoiceXML, speech recognition technology and the software that translates text to speech have improved vastly in recent years, they remain technologically immature. Speech recognition software, for instance, can be frustrating to interact with, and voice user interfaces are kludgy -- comparable to the simple Web site designs of five or six years ago. Nonetheless, several undeterred U.S. wireless operators, including Sprint PCS and Verizon, have started to offer multimodal applications that provide simultaneous voice and data access.

Additionally, Oracle is opening a development center in Chicago dedicated to advancing voice technology and applications as well as testing and optimizing third-party voice technology for deployment on Oracle software. Chicago also happens to be Motorola's hometown -- maybe the database giant figures the phone manufacturer needs all the help it can get.

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