June 20, 2006 10:50 AM PDT

Microsoft aims to end 'phone tag'

For a long time now, Microsoft has been touting the end of phone tag.

Next week, the company may finally take a step in that direction. For several years, Microsoft has shown demos in which people can choose who contacts them, and when--and through the miracle of software, we are seamlessly connected to those with whom we want to communicate. It's one of the company's favorite technology-of-the-future demos, right up there with the one in which the computer dutifully responds to our every spoken command.

Decent voice-command, however, still seems a bit far off. But Microsoft has some products it says will bring us closer to that reality of unified messaging.

The company has scheduled an event Monday in San Francisco where business division president Jeff Raikes and unified messaging VP Anoop Gupta will launch several new products.

"Imagine a world without jet lag, without phone tag, and without time wasted waiting for feedback," the software maker said in an invitation to reporters. "Join us as Microsoft reveals its strategy for delivering Unified Communications--a new way to collaborate, communicate and get things done across a global work force."

Microsoft has already announced some steps in this direction. Earlier this year, the company combined its Exchange unit with the real-time communications group that handles its Live Communications Server for instant messaging and presence management--software that detects whether you are online or offline. The company has also said that the next version of the Exchange e-mail server will be able to handle voice mail and allow workers to check e-mail by phone.

Meanwhile, the company's efforts are being aided by the move of telephony--particularly business telephony--off of traditional phone lines and onto computer networks, through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

Microsoft has said to expect new products in the unified messaging area but has not yet said just what it will offer. Chairman Bill Gates touted Monday's event during his speech last week in which he announced plans to scale back his full-time work at Microsoft over the next two years.

"We'll have an event here in the next couple weeks where we talk about the breakthrough things we're going to do there," he said. "And a lot of what you'll hear is stuff that just no one else is doing."

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Leaving a message for the dog
In 1998, I left behind my 20-year research career in speech recognition (SR), frustrated by its painfully slow progress. I likened it to talking to the dog: you had to limit yourself to a short list of clearly articulated words (SIT! HEEL! DOWN!). Today things have not moved on much ("Please Say FLIGHT STATUS, RESERVATIONS or UPGRADES"), despite the considerable investment by Microsoft and others. Even Kai-Fu Lee, Microsoft's ex-Carnegie Mellon SR hotshot, defected into an operations role at Google...

Rashly I moved on to join a company building a unified messaging (UM) platform. A double strike in the view of Ina Fried's article! And what have we found in 18 years of building UM boxes? Why has it not taken off? With few exceptions, users do not want to mix the modalities. We don't want our faxes read to us, because we want to see the signature or map that caused it to be a good subject for a fax in the first place. We don't want our emails read out to us because they are often long and contain complex enclosures. And we certainly don't want our voice messages transcribed to text -- by Fido. Each messaging medium - voice, email, fax, IM - has its convenience and preferred use scenarios, and they rarely overlap!

You were too generous, Ina. UM, like SR, is a persistent victim of misplaced visioneering hype. And it's for good reasons, whether they are technology limitations or user behaviors.
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