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Technology | TECHNOLOGY

Speech Code From I.B.M. to Become Open Source


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I.B.M. plans to announce today that it will contribute some of its speech-recognition software to two open-source software groups.

The move is a tactical step by International Business Machines to accelerate the development of speech applications and to outmaneuver rivals, especially Microsoft, in a market that is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years with increased use in customer-service call centers, cars and elsewhere. To do this, I.B.M. is again using the strategy of placing some of its proprietary software in open-source projects, making it available for other programmers to improve.

"We're trying to spur the industry around open standards to get more and more speech application development," said Steven A. Mills, the senior vice president in charge of I.B.M.'s software business. "Our code contribution is about getting that ecosystem going. If that happens, we think it will bring more business opportunities to I.B.M."

After decades of research and development, speech recognition is moving toward mainstream use. Advances in statistical modeling, pattern-matching algorithms and processing power have enabled speech recognition to interpret a far broader vocabulary of words and phrases than in the past, though glitches remain.


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The software for speech-recognition applications once had to be custom built, but now packages of reusable and standardized tools are becoming available. The speech software can now be added to a Web application so that programmers can use familiar tools and need little additional training.

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"This whole speech world is going in the same direction as the rest of the information technology industry, and that should drastically reduce the cost of building speech applications," said Mark Plakias, an analyst at Opus Research.

I.B.M. is donating code that it estimates cost the company $10 million to develop. One collection of speech software for handling basic words for dates, time and locations, like cities and states, will go to the Apache Software Foundation. The company is also contributing speech-editing tools to a second open-source group, the Eclipse Foundation.

I.B.M. has contributed code to open-source programmers in the past. In August, for example, the company contributed Cloudscape, a database written in the Java programming language, to the Apache Foundation. And I.B.M. is a leading corporate sponsor of open-source projects like the Apache Web server and the Linux operating system. "It's our usual play," Mr. Mills said.

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I.B.M. is also announcing an agreement with Avaya, a leading supplier of call-center technology, to jointly develop speech-enabled self-service applications for corporate customers. "Web self-service and speech self-service can be developed in tandem," said Eileen Rudden, vice president of Avaya's communications applications division. "We see this as a way to lower the cost of building speech applications and broaden the market."

As part of the alliance, Avaya plans to offer its call-center applications on I.B.M.'s WebSphere software, though it is not an exclusive agreement. WebSphere is central to I.B.M.'s software strategy; it includes tools for building applications and it is a platform on which other software programs run.

WebSphere is a layer of software above the operating system, but as a technology platform it competes with Microsoft's Windows and .Net technology.

Microsoft has developed its own standardized tools for making speech recognition applications, and in March it introduced Microsoft Speech Server 2004 for running speech-enabled applications. More than 100,000 software programmers have downloaded Microsoft's free software developers' kit for building speech applications on its Windows .Net technology.

Microsoft executives contend that it is less expensive and faster to build speech applications with its technology than with I.B.M.'s tools or other alternatives.

"This is a case of I.B.M. following Microsoft," said James Mastan, director of marketing for Microsoft Speech Technologies. "I.B.M. has not executed in bringing this technology to a broad market as Microsoft has."

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