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October 31, 1999

Microsoft Buys Entropic for Future Speech Efforts

By CBR Staff Writer

By Dan Jones

Microsoft Corp has bought speech software developer Entropic Inc, a move that could shape the company’s approach to speech interfaces for both mobile and desktop applications and radically change its relationship with existing speech partners such as Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products NV. The financial terms of the acquisition have not been announced. Entropic, which is based in Washington D.C and Cambridge, UK has long been respected within the industry and academic circles for developing an extremely powerful speech engine and toolkit for embedding speech functions in applications. Recently, the company has been working on customized transcription and telephony systems.

The acquisition has wide-ranging implications for Microsoft’s entire strategy in the speech recognition field – from voice enabling desktop and mobile operating systems – and perhaps most importantly, web applications – to developing computer telephony applications. Microsoft snapping up Entropic and the deal between IBM Corp and Nokia Oyj to work on speech R&D projects last week, shows that the industry’s ideas about how to implement speech engines is changing. Rather than the heavy emphasis on PC speech recognition applications of the past, companies are looking at providing a ‘natural’ speech interface on connected mobile devices and voice-enabling web applications. This would mean Microsoft working on enabling its speech technology to work with internet and wireless data transport mechanisms such as the wireless application protocol (WAP) and XML. Entropic is already working on enhancing Microsoft’s speech application programming interface (SAPI).

Brain Corbett, chief operating officer at Entropic, envisages a speech interface on mobile device being used in tandem with a GUI, such as a WAP microbrowser. The advantage of a ‘natural’ speech interface on a mobile device will be that users have a much more intuitive way to access information, both stored on machine and online. Corbett claims that any such interface, would go beyond the simple command and control functions able on telephony systems and the like now. He says that instead of having to select options on a mobile device, or talk through a list of options on a phone-based systems, future web-connected and telephony systems will allow the user simply to ask for information on flight BZ12 flying from Zurich airport. The speech recognition, context and conversation processing held on the server accessed by the device client or telephony app front-end would then spit out the relevant answer.

Microsoft is already well positioned in the telephony applications market having taken a 5% stake in Dialogic Corp in March. Entropic’s speech know-how can only improve its offerings. Although the desktop operating system has perhaps been overshadowed in recent months by the vision of a world of mobile devices wirelessly connected to the web, Microsoft is still working on integrating a voice recognition engine in its operating systems. Since January 1993, Microsoft has had a team developing adapting a university-developed speech engine Sphinx-II into the Windows Highly Intelligent Speech Recognizer – Whisper, although it has not integrated it in any products. A tie-up with Entropic could help to beef up Whisper and would presumably provide a sophisticated competitor that would compete with standalone offerings from IBM, L&H and Philips, but be provided free of charge with a future version of Windows. We called Microsoft’s erstwhile speech recognition partner, L&H, to get some reaction to this latest twist in their relationship but it did not return our calls by press time.

We first highlighted Entropic in November last year (CI No 3,548), the firm grew out of Washington Research Laboratory (WRL), which was established in 1985 by Entropic’s President, Dr. John Shore. The signal processing tools developed at WRL became the basis of Entropic’s initial Unix-based ESPS and Waves speech and signal processing tools widely used in scientific R&D labs and which the company still sells. In 1991 Shore went on to form the Entropic Research Laboratory (ERL) Inc to concentrate on the development of these tools. In 1995 ERL and Cambridge University Engineering Department collaborated to start Entropic Cambridge Research Laboratory (ECRL) in the UK. Shore and several other executives will leave the company. However, Corbett said the majority of Entropic’s employees will remain; either working in Cambridge or in on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.

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