Driven in no small part by the high-profile inclusion of Siri as one of the headline features in Apple’s latest generation iPhone 4S, speech technology is undoubtedly one of the industry’s current hot topics.

Numerous companies are developing apps which marry speech input with the mobile internet to transform how users access content on the move, including some apps which would not be possible using a standard keyboard input.

Of the companies working in this market, Nuance is one of the most obvious success stories. It is the enabling technology partner of choice for a number of speech-enabled products and also offers its own apps. The company also owns the T9 predictive text input technology, which has been embedded into devices from a raft of vendors.

Nuance’s voice and predictive touch offerings have shipped on more than 5 billion devices, having been used by “every leading handset and auto OEM and carrier in the world.” Its impressive customer base includes Apple, Amazon, AT&T, Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, HTC, Mercedes-Benz, Motorola, Nokia, OnStar, Samsung, Sprint, Toyota, Verizon Wireless and ZTE

Kenn Harper (pictured), director of Product Management and Marketing for Speech Solutions at the company, told Mobile Apps Briefing that “mobile is our fastest growing division at Nuance, where we’ve been able to bring to market some truly compelling voice innovations.”

Manufacturer focus
While Nuance offers a number of apps through stores, including its Dragon-branded speech products, the company does not look on this as being a standalone activity. “Our business model is based on licensing our technology and applications directly to handset manufacturers and operators; our free apps enable us to proliferate the power of voice and get some great consumer feedback for our customers,” Harper said.

With this in mind, app promotion has not been a high priority. “We raise the visibility of our applications primarily through word of mouth – along with some great consumer and media reviews.  In a sense, we feel strongly that the experience speaks for itself. If consumers enjoy using the Dragon products, then they will express their satisfaction and share their experiences through App Store reviews, on blogs, and with their friends via social networking channels,” he commented.

“Customers continue to download our applications because of the experience they offer. Our focus is on delivering the highest level of performance (accuracy), design simplicity, and innovative capabilities,” Harper noted.

Turning up the volume
But this does not mean that Nuance is not playing to win. For its direct-to-consumer apps, the company has targeted markets which will result in a large number of downloads. “One of our primary goals with these applications is to collect real world data that can be used to materially improve the performance of our speech technology. As such, achieving a high number of downloads is the critical criterion we consider when selecting a platform for direct-to-consumer distribution.”  

Nuance has also focused regionally on markets with the largest number of smartphone users, as well as those prioritised by manufacturer and operator customers. It is looking to continue to expand to smaller markets in 2012, with the intention to support more than 40 languages at the end of this period.

Future focus
Harper said that the company sees “many opportunities” moving forward, including both its own direct-to-consumers apps and enabling third-parties to use its speech technologies. The company has its own developer programme in place to support it in the latter, called NDEV.

Other development areas for the company include work in natural language understanding, to enable voice commands to be used to “efficiently navigate your mobile lifestyle.”

“We have a large team of researchers, engineers, and designers working on technology development and application solutions. Advanced speech and natural language solutions for mobile will continue to be one of Nuance’s largest investments,” Harper concluded.

Steve Costello