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Imagine a salesman talking to your Web-based CRM system from his cell phone. He asks for the latest sales figures for a client he's flying to meet, and the CRM system e-mails him moments later.

Where SALT gets its flavor
Putting SALT on the table
Ask this of infrastructure vendors about SALT
SALT vs. VoiceXML

Such "multimodal" applications are the idea behind Speech Application Language Tags (SALT), an emerging technology that provides a speech interface to Web information. An extension to existing Web programming models and markup languages such as HTML, XHTML and XML, SALT helps create speech interfaces that will reside alongside traditional I/O modes such as text, audio, video and graphics. Rather than dealing with cumbersome custom code, SALT developers should be able to work with familiar tools and techniques.

Developers who try SALT will find it to be a pretty solid specification, says Alexander Rudnicky, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science. Rudnicky and his students hope to complete development of an open source SALT browser by year-end. "Our vision is that once it is available and distributed, tens of thousands of people can download our browser and start playing with it," he says.

Although promising, SALT is still in its infancy. It will be a year or more before network executives can consider adding SALT-based capabilities to their internal or external Web applications.

"The exciting thing about SALT is that it's a necessary first step for concurrent multimodal applications to become mainstream," says Dan Hawkins, managing analyst for voice business at Datamonitor. "But that's some years off."

Where SALT gets its flavor

SALT has been under development for a year by the SALT Forum, an industry group led by Microsoft, Cisco and Intel that has grown to include 50 companies. The SALT Forum wants to create an open, royalty-free standard that supports speech access to Web content through a variety of devices, including telephones, desktop and tablet PCs, and PDAs. The SALT Forum in July released Version 1.0 of the specification to the public and submitted it to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for consideration by working groups developing standards for voice browsers and multimodal applications.

This fall, the W3C working groups will begin discussing how to move forward with the SALT specification and how SALT might interrelate with the W3C's VoiceXML standard, says Dave Raggett, a W3C fellow who leads these two working groups. While SALT focuses on speech-enabling Web pages and creating multimodal applications for wireless users, VoiceXML targets telephony applications such as directory access, call routing and cell centers. But whether these two standards will be complementary or competitive is unclear as SALT also can be used to create telephony applications.

Putting SALT on the table

Enterprise use of SALT will likely be for the development of multimodal applications for areas such as Web-based self service, call centers, CRM and sales force automation systems. Or, companies could give SALT-capable tablet PCs to workers such as insurance adjusters, real estate agents and aircraft mechanics who prefer hands-free input to fill out Web-based forms.

Industry segments expected to adopt SALT are those that already use speech recognition and interactive voice response systems: banking, finance, telecommunications, travel and other customer-service-intensive industries, says Peter Gavalakis, a marketing manager at Intel.

SALT-enabling a Web site will require Web development tools that support the specification, and SALT-capable browsers and Web server software. SALT browsers are available from HeyAnita and Philips, and Kirusa offers a SALT-based multimodal platform. Inter-Voice Brite says it will add SALT support to its Media Gateway, which supports VoiceXML, by year-end.

But Microsoft's support for SALT is most critical, industry observers say.

"SALT is important because Microsoft is involved," Datamonitor's Hawkins says, adding that Microsoft is focusing exclusively on SALT. The company is not involved with VoiceXML development and doesn't support VoiceXML in its products. (SALT co-developers Cisco and Intel, on the other hand, do support VoiceXML.)

Microsoft in May began shipping the beta version of its .Net Speech SDK, a Web development toolkit that supports SALT (see story). The toolkit includes add-ons to Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Pocket Internet Explorer browsers to support speech input. And by year-end, Microsoft plans to release a beta version of its .Net speech platform, which is server software that will support speech-enabled Web applications, says James Mastan, director of marketing for .Net speech technologies at Microsoft.

SALT supporters have their challenge in finding service providers and companies willing to invest in speech-enabled Web applications during these tough economic times. Other hurdles include spreading awareness of the technology among Web developers and continuing to develop industry partnerships with companies such as AT&T and IBM, which back VoiceXML and have yet to join the SALT Forum.

"There are tens of thousands of developers who are doing stuff in VoiceXML," Hawkins says. "The challenge is getting all those developers to work on SALT."

Carnegie Mellon's Rudnicky notes that SALT does a good job of hiding much of the complexity involved with developing speech-enabled systems. But, he says, SALT lacks a set of libraries or reusable code for developers to modify to their purposes.

Still, Rudnicky remains optimistic about SALT's potential because, he says, it will let people who aren't intimately familiar with speech recognition, voice synthesis and other underlying technologies create working applications. "SALT is a big deal."

SALT vs. VoiceXML
The W3C must sort out whether SALT and VoiceXML are more complementary or competitive. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two.
W3C work initiated in July 2002, with a final specification 12 to 18 months away. Work began in March 1999. Final specification due in the fall of 2002.
Handful of early and beta products available. Dozens of shipping products.
Designed for speech-enabling Web pages and multimodal applications, but can be used to create telephony applications. Designed for telephony applications.
An extension to HTML, XHTML and XML, which should lower development costs vs. using a brand-new language. A brand-new language for telephony applications.

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