Simplifying Voice Application Development

Last September, IBM made a notable contribution to the voice development community by providing the Apache foundation with a set of reusable dialog components for creating voice and multimodal applications. While some at the time criticized the contribution as “discardware,” the folks at Apache recently announced that version 1.0 of the Reusable Dialog Component Taglib is now available for use by developers.

How useful these components are for aiding the rapid development of voice applications remains to be seen – a lot is riding on how developers react to this news.

There are other efforts out there to make developing voice applications generally, and VoiceXML applications specifically, more efficient. There is a set of PHP libraries available on SourceForge for creating VoiceXML/CCXML/SRGS applications. My own meager contribution to this broader effort is a small PHP class library that can be used to generate SRGS grammars in XML format.

Hopefully, we are only seeing the beginning of a broader and more sustained effort to simplify voice application development.


Regulating VoIP Services

An excellent article on the issues facing governments in the US and Europe around classification and regulation of VoIP services appears in the most recent issue of First Monday. The authors go into great depth to summarize the steps taken to date in both the US and Europe by regulators, and characterize the regulation of VoIP services as “inevitable.”

“There is a fundamental difference between VOIP and previous IP–powered innovations such as e–mail or Instant Messaging: these latter technologies burst into a new, unregulated space. There was no market for e–mail prior to the commercial diffusion of e–mail, for instance. There were no market rules, no incumbents used to operating under these rules, and no past policy objectives dependent on the execution of the rules. By contrast, VOIP services inevitably run headlong into traditional telephony regulation, characterized by detailed oversight and common–carrier obligations. Over the course of more than a century, policymakers have devised a dense set of rules and regulations covering emergency services, network integrity, universal access, and the allocation of scarce identifiers such as telephone numbers, to name just a few. As VOIP displaces current telecommunications technologies, it will inevitably be confronted with these regulatory legacies.”

Among a number of other interesting points made, the article makes a fascinating observation about the nature of government regulation (or, rather, about government regulators).

“The debate over how to classify VOIP represents the leading edge of the question whether regulatory classification is useful in a world of converging technologies. In other words, precisely because VOIP forces the convergence of previous era telecommunications and the Internet, we ought to pause and ask whether regulation from that previous era still makes sense.”

In other words, the knee jerk reaction of government regulators may be to try and classify VoIP using existing regulatory frameworks because that is simply what they do. Or, more accurately, despite the difficulty inherent in trying to classify VoIP using old school classifications this is much more palatable than opening a debate on whether the role of government oversight and regulation is fundamentally changing in the wake of staggering technical innovation. In short, if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail.

An intersting read — well worth the time of anyone interested in VoIP.

Striving for a Standard

Frances West, Director of IBM’s Worldwide Accessibility Center, has written an interesting piece about the possible divergence in standards for the accessibility of web content between the US and European governments. She makes the excellent observation that:

“Without a harmonized approach to procuring information technology, each government could adopt a different technical standard. If various governments mandate different regional or country technical requirements, industry will be forced to focus on multiple compliance efforts, rather than pushing beyond compliance and investing in new technology and solutions.”

I can’t help but wonder if some level of divergence doesn’t already exist within the US between the federal and state governments. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 sets IT accessibility standards for federal government entities, but its applicability to state governments is somewhat murky. Many states have embraced the guidelines established as part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). While these two sets of standards are similar, they are not the same.

The State of New York – IBM’s home state, which I would argue is a sufficiently large enough procurer of IT goods and services to have an impact on the industry – goes by the WAI standards.

Ms. West’s points are well taken and it seems fairly obvious that if Section 508 does, in fact, apply to state governments in the US someone ought to tell them. If industry is saddled with having to engineer solutions to meet multiple sets of accessibility standards, it could mean time taken away from work on new solutions to make web content and services more accessible.

Making Web Pages Talk

An interesting article appears in the eGov Monitor (A UK-based service covering technology and e-government related news) concerning technologies to speech enable web sites.

The article is written by Carin Lennartsson of ReadSpeaker, a company that provides a service to voice-enable ordinary web pages. The article has some interesting statistics on challenges facing certain groups of web users in the UK, and correctly points to the responsibility of governments to find ways to provide web-based services accessible to them. There is even a link provided so that users can hear the article read back to them using the RedSpeaker TTS technology. (The quality of the TTS is very good in my opinion, and I really like the English accent!)

Finding ways to speech enable web content for the disabled and other challenged constituencies is a critical component of successful e-government efforts. Without knowing a whole lot about the technology involved in the ReadSpeaker service, I’d say that most governments would be well served by taking some common sense steps toward this goal:

  • Have a plan. Efforts to speech-enable web content should be part of a comprehensive e-government strategy, and should have the sanction (and encouragement) of the government body responsible for overseeing e-government activities. As more vendors and solutions enter this space, there is the very real potential that efforts can become fragmented and counterproductive.
  • Keep your eye on the (standards) ball. The growing body of web standards aimed at supporting government efforts to speech-enable their web content is the key to vendor independence and future interoperability. Governments should insist that solutions marketed to help their constituencies achieve greater access be based on these standards.

As more solutions are developed in this area, it is time for government leaders to stand up and take a leadership role in setting the direction of future innovation.

Creating “Multi-Mobile” Applications

I’ve written a brand new tutorial describing how to create “Multi-Mobile” applications with PHP. This example uses the powerful HAWHAW library for creating mobile applications, something I’ve been talking about doing for a whie now.

Multi-mobile applications deliver content that is specifically tailored to the device being employed by the end user. This content is formatted differently based on the requirements of each specific device, and the mode of input is restricted to that supported by the device. Users accessing a form requiring specific input will see different manifestations of the same interface depending on the device they are using.

What makes these applications special is that a single code base provides the functionality for device independence. So, whether an end user is making a phone call, using a WAP-enabled browser or an XHTML-enabled PDA the application is built to format an interface appropriately for each device.

If your interested in building Multi-Mobile applications, you need to read this!

Driving while dialing

The New York Times is reporting on an Australian-based study examining the link between cell phone usage and traffic accidents. It suggests that using a “hands free” phone does not aid in traffic safety, calling into question laws allowing the use of hands free devices in cars while driving.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any safety benefit by restricting drivers to hands-free phones,” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “It’s the cognitive overload that sometimes occurs when you’re engaging in a conversation that is the source of the distraction more so than the manipulation of the device.”

The actual study appears in the British Medical Journal – should be an interesting read.

On the wire

Google’s decision to invest in a company focusing on delivering broadband Internet access over power lines (often referred to as “BPL” – Broadband over Power Line, or “PLC” – Power Line Communications) was the first in what appears to be a one-two punch for BPL this week. It’s now being reported that IBM is also making an investment in BPL via a company called CenterPoint Energy in Houston, TX.

The advent of widespread BPL access creates an interesting possibility of a new way of providing VoIP telephone service. It also suggests the possibility of new players in the VoIP space (i.e., power companies). This is interesting for many reasons – states and local government have a revenue and regulatory stake in the power industry, and the field of VoIP providers is getting uncomfortably crowded given that there isn’t a clear regulatory picture as yet.

This is another good indicator that states and local governments need to constantly evaluate their revenue and regulatory environments in light of new advances in technology. Governments that don’t take these proactive steps risk being left out in the cold as new ways of delivering old services emerge.