By Luc De Smet, independent journalist
It requires a pusher to put a technology on the map. Some may have thought that the worldwide pusher for speech technology was molded in Flemish clay. The Belgian company Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) grew fast and wide. Its road to success was based on ever-faster growth. Today, the technologies which were once bundled in Ypres have found refuge elsewhere. The 'language valley' has turned silent. It will not become the world center of ten language campuses something that was in the planning not so long ago. The bankruptcy of L&H coincided with the general malaise in the world of hi-tech. The market is less heated now than it used to be. But the strategies of those who took over are not less inspired.
"When we took over L&H on 12 December 2001, it fitted with our strategic planning," says Mark Erwich, Marketing Director International at ScanSoft. ScanSoft already leads the market in OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and document management with products such as OmniPage, PaperPort and OmniForm. "We bid for the three core technologies of L&H." He refers to RealSpeak (TTS or speech synthesis), automatic speech recognition (ASR, multilingual speaker independent recognition) and the dictation technology (Dragon NaturallySpeaking). ScanSoft did not go for the translation technology nor for the intelligent content management. The 'human translation' service that L&H owned?as a result of the takeover of Mendez?had already been split off and sold to Bowne.
When ScanSoft took over L&H it committed itself to take on 150 employees of the company. "We took on most of the people involved in research and development. Eventually the figure rose to 220, which is more than half of all L&H employees." In Belgium most of them are working at the O&O-department in Merelbeke near Ghent. They are mainly linguists and computer language experts, but also software engineers, programmers, system analysts and specialists in speech synthesis and speech recognition. Markets in the Far East that Scansoft previously addressed through its US operation now use the commercial channels that L&H set up in Asia.
Twenty one languages and ... counting
Computers would grow smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous. That was the vision of L&H. The 'invisible' computer would have speech as its only practical interface. L&H worked on languages with market potential, that is, languages spoken by large groups or those with economically viable markets. In this context, the so-called LDC's (Language Development Companies) were to develop some twenty languages using the L&H development methodology. CLDC (Cross-Language Development Companies) were also set up to develop automatic machine translation for language pairs. IAC's (Intelligent Agent Companies) would design search robots.
In 1998 L&H started recruiting people within these structures. Three years on "we had to part with a lot of them," says Jan Odijk who worked at L&H since 1997. Now he is senior director of Linguistic Resources Speech and Language Technologies at ScanSoft. L&H had employed several people for most languages. When in 2001 the problems arose and the financial structure around the LDCs started to leak, L&H took over the projects that had reached maturity, such as Polish and Turkish. Work was halted on newer languages, such as Hindi and Vietnamese.
When ScanSoft took over L&H, it held on to products L&H had already developed, projects at advanced stages of development and anything else that had market potential. ScanSoft developed these further. It recently released RealSpeak in Polish. Since the takeover ScanSoft has released new versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and RealSpeak. These were better quality and had new features. "We've got over twenty languages, now," says Erwich of ScanSoft. Some 250 people are active in R&D. The company has development activities in the USA, Merelbeke (Belgium) and Budapest (Hungary).
Back in 2000 L&H bought Dictaphone, the American leader in dictation systems that was particularly well established in the medical world. Shortly afterwards the company also brought home its competitor Dragon, one of the strongest American producers of speech recognition software. Dragon had its product Dragon NaturallySpeaking on the shelves right next to L&H's own VoiceXpress. It also had a foothold in banking with its data mining technology, which swiftly locates particular strings ('key words') in stored conversations. L&H merged VoiceXpress and NaturallySpeaking into one product and brought it to the market as Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
ScanSoft developed that product further and upgraded it to Windows XP, both as a Preferred edition for the home user and the Professional version for the professional market. It also markets licenses of the dictation software and a software developer's kit (SDK). "Dictaphone was a client of L&H and is a client of ScanSoft now."
Commercially, ScanSoft sells its products 'in the box' and under license, just as L&H did. Licenses for RealSpeak TTS-technology, according to ScanSoft's annual report?"the most distributed TTS motor in the world"?are a source of regular revenue. "With RealSpeak we emphasize software development kits," says Erwich. There are kits for integrating TTSs in mobile and server applications. One of the differences between L&H and ScanSoft is that the latter "has a stronger focus on its markets and technologies."
ScanSoft develops its technologies incrementally?an evolutionary approach?as did L&H. Since the takeover no significant changes have been made in strategy or technology. "Sometimes leaps are made," says Odijk who recognizes L&H made a qualitative jump when it moved from TTS3000 to RealSpeak. "All of a sudden we had a good, human-sounding voice." As soon as L&H had its technology running on big servers, the aim became to move towards smaller platforms.
"ScanSoft continues what L&H started. That has resulted in the product RealSpeak Compact, an SDK that runs on small systems under Windows CE. The same goes for dictation systems. For example, L&H's plans for new functionalities have now been implemented in Dragon NaturallySpeaking. In automatic speech recognition L&H had decided to focus less on the telecom market and to move towards the 'embedded' mobile and automotive world. "ScanSoft continues on the same track."
"We try to make the technology ever more compact?for so-called 'small footprint' devices?but stick to one operating system to manage the cost of research," says Erwich. ScanSoft is a Gold Certified partner of Microsoft. "We are involved in the product development of the TabletPC. For Microsoft?which integrated the technology of L&H and of ScanSoft in OfficeXP?it was merely handy that ScanSoft took over L&H."
ScanSoft, a spin-off of Xerox, uses strict management procedures in its development processes. Intensive communication with clients also results in important improvements in some product groups. 'Focus' and 'dominance' are key to ScanSoft's product strategy. As L&H did before, ScanSoft aims to lead the market in its core businesses. That is already the case with its OCR technology. Erwich puts the market share of RealSpeak at a stable 57%. "In essence, the volume of the market has not changed. Some small providers have entered the market lately, but they are more competitors to each other than to the major players."
Has the takeover of a bankrupt company had any negative side-effects for ScanSoft? "The L&H technology was highly regarded by everyone. ScanSoft enjoys the positive image that comes with that. We have not changed the core of this technology." ScanSoft grows and wants to continue doing so in a controlled fashion. With the technology of L&H?now ScanSoft?it can play trumps. "Clients do not want a different engine for each new language. The expandability of our solution, growing globalization and concentration of the market will only reinforce our position."
is an independent journalist, with a background in peace research, having worked for Pax Christi Flanders, for International Peace Information Service in Antwerp, and later at the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala (Sweden). He writes on a broad range of topics including the economy, management, human resources, industry, logistics, environment and technology matters.
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