Microsoft's decision to invest $45 million in speech technology company, Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products of Belgium, suggests Windows 98 may 'talk'.
Microsoft is acquiring an eight per cent stake in the company, and the software giant's Europe president Bernard Vergnes will have a seat on L&H's board of directors. Shares in the company rose sharply on the news (and preceding rumours), from $26 to $34 7/8.
L&H is run by former Apple vice president Gaston Bastiaens.
The deal follows a few days after Microsoft posted its new Microsoft Agent technology on the Web. This provides animated characters that talk to the user - using L&H's text-to-speech technology.
Neither Microsoft nor L&H are commenting on the details of their agreement, or even on which L&H products or technologies might be licensed by its new stakeholder. However, sources close to the Belgian company are suggesting that at least some of its technology will make it into Windows 98, which is now in beta and is expected to reach the market in the first quarter of 1998.
The text-to-speech functionality embedded in Microsoft Agent would be a likely candidate. However, L&H has a number of other products in the works that might help explain Microsoft's interest. The company is working on a continuous speech recognition system that would compete with recently announced products from IBM and Dragon Systems. L&H's product, though trailing these other two, is scheduled to ship in November. This would, according to some sources, still allow it to be slipped into a next beta version of Windows 98.
IBM is already shipping a limited version of its own (non-continuous) dictation software as a part of its OS/2 Warp operating system. The newly released second beta of Windows 98 does not contain speech technology.
However, Microsoft chief Bill Gates has recently stated repeatedly that natural language will play an important part in the future of man-machine interfaces - and in the future of Windows.
Sources are now hinting at an announcement by Bill Gates at November's Comdex show in Las Vegas.
In the meantime, Microsoft is still continuing research on its own natural language technology, some of which is being conducted at its recently established British laboratories. Microsoft has been working for some years on its own continuous dictation software, codenamed Whisper. Microsoft spokespeople have denied that the Whisper project will be terminated. Whether it will be developed alongside L&H's product, or whether some technology from L&H will be integrated into Whisper, is still unclear.
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