Here's a story worth keeping an eye on, or more appropriately, lending an ear to: several Chinese technology firms, apparently not content to let Apple, Google, and Microsoft have the burgeoning voice recognition market all to themselves, have formed a new trade alliance called the Speech Industry Alliance of China (SIAC).
The SIAC's 19 founding members include some industry heavyweights like Lenovo and Huawei, telecom giants like China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, and some less well-known companies like Anhui USTC iFlytek, DigiTimes reported this week.
The trade group will focus on Chinese-language voice recognition technology, so at first blush, the SIAC may appear to be a curiosity to English-speaking users of tech like Apple's Siri voice assistant. But keep in mind that Mandarin and Cantonese aren't fringe languages—they're spoken by a billion people and it seems imaginable that concentrated innovation in Chinese-language speech tech could quickly spill out into other languages as well.
There's already a healthy voice recognition developer base in China, according to DigiTimes. Anhui USTC iFlytek, for example, has 5,000 partners in China and a 70 per cent share of the Chinese-language voice recognition market, according to the site.
The companies in the SIAC think there's plenty of room for home-grown alternatives to Siri and Google's Voice Actions for Android. Siri's Mandarin and Cantonese versions have received mixed reviews and Google's sluggishness in getting Chinese-language voice up and running has opened the door for Chinese voice apps for Android like iFlytek's Language Point and Android Virtual Assistant from Vlingo, a unit of US-based Nuance.
Speech recognition isn't new by any means. Ray Kurzweil, now probably more famous as a futurist, was pioneering text-to-speech synthesis in the mid-1970s. But the tech lingered on the fringe of the computing revolution for decades, despite the efforts of companies like Microsoft to integrate voice recognition in word programming software and other products.
That's all changed now and a lot of the credit has to go to Apple.
Say what you will about Siri's deficiencies (and some Apple customers are saying their piece in court), but it's undeniable that the digital assistant introduced with the iPhone 4S has finally sparked the public's imagination for voice.
And the tech firms that founded the SIAC appear to be taking this wide-open new market very seriously indeed.