Traipsing around the NT99 show at Olympia the other week, I found little millennium cheer for the channel. Sure, there was the latest Windows 2000 announcements, along with the inevitable ragbag of stalls exhibiting everything from network tools to fax servers and training manuals. But different product lines that dealers could tap into for a profit? Not only were these thin on the ground, but where they did exist, margins were tighter than Mick Jagger's wallet. But there was one notable exception. Just a few yards from where Microsoft was loudly banging the drum for its ecommerce wares, speech recognition expert Dragon was going great guns, demonstrating how its software could be trained to recognise a stranger's voice in just five minutes. What's more, the software worked - something of a rarity in live demos. Plucked at random from the audience, users reeled off extracts from the day's paper and watched in awe as their dictation appeared almost immediately on the giant screen, free of error 99 per cent of the time. This is one technology the channel should be able to make a tidy buck from. After numerous false starts, it really could be that speech recognition is on course to hit $3.5bn in global sales by 2001 - the figure quoted by Dragon's arch rival Lernout Hauspie. Shrink-wrapped packages of IBM, Lernout and Dragon's software are already selling well in the UK. But the market has yet to explode, mainly because users have been deterred by having to train the software to recognise their voice, a chore that, until now, has taken an hour or more to do. The real money, however, is not in peddling shrink-wrapped PC packages, but in meeting the needs of businesses where the software can be integrated into everything from call centre technology to web servers and mobile communications. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that just days after the NT show, Microsoft announced it was stepping up its efforts in this area by buying one of the UK's R&D firms, Entropic, a product of Cambridge University. Entropic makes the software tools and APIs that allow third-party developers to integrate speech recognition into other programs. Microsoft's official reason for the acquisition is that it needs more engineers in this field, but the explanation doesn't quite hold true, given that it already has a seven per cent stake in Lernout & Hauspie and could easily raise its holding there. Some insiders suggest Bill Gates originally wanted a chunk of Dragon, but as it wasn't playing, he opted for Lernout instead. And, disappointed with Lernout's progress, he now has his eye on Blighty's boffins. It could even be that he has his own spy installed at Cambridge University in the guise of Chuck Thacker, head of Microsoft research, whose offices are based on the revered campus. If anybody is able to sniff out talent, it should be Thacker. Who's Thacker? Only one of Xerox Parc's legendary pioneers and creator of the Alto, the world's first PC. And Xerox Parc was among the first to latch on to speech recognition technologies. Way, way back in 1971.
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