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WebSphere changes will speak to users

IBM is beefing up its WebSphere family with add-ons to enable users to access network data using voice commands.

IBM last week announced a series of new voice-related products that will enable users to access network-based data simply by speaking and listening.

More specifically, Big Blue announced a series of WebSphere enhancements that increase the functionality of voice-enabled data, making it easier for businesses to create and deploy applications that recognize voice commands.

IBM augmented its Voice Toolkit for WebSphere Studio, adding a drag-and-drop interface to help developers better understand information flow in a voice interface.

The company also announced that its WebSphere Voice Server will now support Media Resource Control Protocol (MRCP), a proposed standard for integration of automatic speech recognition and text-to-speech functionality.

Additionally, IBM released details on enhancements to WebSphere Voice Application Access. The new features enable additional customization and improve manageability.

"This is a way of taking existing data and putting it in front of an end user in a natural way. When businesses do that, they will derive efficiencies," said Igor Jablokov, program director of speech with IBM's pervasive computing division.

Today these interactive voice platforms are largely used in call centers. Dan Miller, a senior analyst with San Francisco-based Zelos Group, said that the market for these products has been stagnant, at about $500 million a year. However, he said this announcement could open the market to much wider use throughout the enterprise.

"This is about making speech another alternative for getting at the stuff that is ingrained in IT infrastructure," Miller said.

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IBM also announced new voice customers, including Prudential Insurance Co. of America, British retail firm JD Williams, and shipping company Parcelforce Worldwide.

Prudential is using the technology only in its call center, but there is some possibility of using it to provide internal services for employees, Jablokov said. For instance, an enterprise could use the technology to provide employees with access to human resources information, such as the balance of a 401k account, he said.

Miller said that businesses might also use such systems for resetting passwords for users that have forgotten them. This is a time-consuming task for IT departments and one that could easily be handled by a voice system.

Ultimately, IBM is trying to open the door for businesses to use voice when and where they find it to be appropriate.

Big Blue is the fourth-place player in the market, trailing market leader Telisma of France, but Miller said IBM has the potential to gain ground by making voice offerings an integral part of mobile data services.

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