July 22, 2014

34 Weeks of OHA: #18

Company Name: Nuance Communications, Inc.

How the OHA site classifies them: Software Company

What the OHA site says about them: Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN) is a leading provider of speech and imaging solutions for businesses and consumers around the world.

What they do: PDF Converter Professional 5. “The only complete PDF solution designed specifically for business users.” $99.99

PaperPort 11 Professional. “The most productive and cost effective way for everyone in your office to scan, organize, find and share all of your documents including paper, PDF, application files and photographs.” $199.99

OmniPage Professional 16. “Allows business professionals to achieve new levels of productivity by eliminating the manual reproduction of documents.” $499.99

Okay, so you might be scratching your head here, wondering what a company that produces document conversion and handling software is doing in the OHA. It probably ain’t so that you can use your handset to convert PDFs, as useful as that might be. Its also probably not so that you can use your phone to organize the documents in your enterprise; I’m not even sure how such a thing would work.

And, honestly, it probably ain’t for the optical character recognition skillz that a $500 gouge for OmniPage would get you. The OCR thing could definitely be useful on a handset (take a picture of a back-of-the-napkin brainstorming session and have it automatically converted to a .txt), but unless there’s something really, really special about OmniPage Professional 16 I don’t think that’s why Nuance is in the OHA, ’cause OCR software is kinda ubiquitous now.

Wikipedia gives us the company’s history: Nuance as we now know it has its origins in a company called ScanSoft, which in the day was called Kurzweil Computer Products, and was started by tech god Raymond Kurzweil back before he became fully aware of his mortality and really started going hippy-dippy. ScanSoft prior to 2001 mostly did desktop imaging software, until they started buying up a specific group of companies, including Nuance who had originally come out of Stanford Research Intitute’s Speech Technology and Reasearch Laboratory (acronym STAR, which sounds like something from a mid-80s cartoon), and was primarily in the business of automated call steering, SIP services, etc. They also bought up these Belgian dudes called Lernout and Hauspie, who earlier had acquired a little firm called Dragon.

Dragon produced NaturallySpeaking, which nowadays is the best selling speech recognition program in the world. NaturallySpeaking and the other acquisitions made ScanSoft, which took on the Nuance name, a speech rcognition powerhouse, which is what gets me all excited at the thought of Nuance being onvolved in the OHA.

What they bring to OHA and Android:

Speech recognition is tech with a lot of promise and a lot of hype that has yet to be realized. We all wanna be like Scotty, and address our cumputer to have it do what we’d like. Unfortunately, at this point, the reality is that we drop $500 and then carefully train the software to take our dictation, only to have it make Swedish out of English whenever we have a cold.

Handsets are a bigger problem simple because of processing power. The 500mhz ARM chips that will be a centerpiece of smartphone architecture over the next year are probably not up to the task of really intensive speech recognition; hell, a 2ghz dual-core intel is barely up to it.

Voice tags for contacts are the low-hanging fruit. We’re already doing that; my 200mhz HTC S621 with Window Mobile will do it no problem. It’s a small dictionary to match against.

So where’s can Nuance’s tech be effectively applied within Android? One idea is a simple location-based search; I press a button and say “Pizza” and my handset responds with the five nearest pizza joints. Or maybe a voice-activated application launcher. Some simple notes dication would be killer, but I think processing power will probably preclude that.

Somehow I have a feeling, however, that Nuance and Google are thinking bigger. Voice message transcription via SMS? It’s been tried before, but as I understand it the results are spotty; if it can be perfected, it would be a productivity tool that I bet many a corporate-type current-Blackberry-user would go ape for. Or what if Google and Nuance are able to move the heavy lifting to the server side, and run full voice-activated search or automatic dictation with no training required; you activate the feature, it connects to Google’s computing power, interprets your voice and returns results to the client via XMPP. I’m not even sure that such a thing is feasible, but it’d sure be sweet. The beauty of good voice recognition tech is that it sets the imagination running wild.

I’m going to give the last word to Steve Chambers, Mobile and Consumer Services Division of Nuance Communications, in a quote from the OHA quote page:

Nuance joined the Open Handset Alliance with other industry leaders to grow the entire mobile ecosystem. We’re committed to apply our strength and leadership in voice-based search and messaging to move the market forward. By packaging and optimizing embedded speech technology components for open-source distribution, we’ve given developers the opportunity to access speech solutions through open APIs using the Android platform and to easily upgrade to new, more advanced speech features as well. We believe deep collaboration with members of the Alliance will grow our core mobile business and fuel the proliferation of speech-enabled applications worldwide.