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L&H aims at $12bn market with Linux voice handheld

Touring the East to drum up interest

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Gaston Bastiaens, CEO of Lernout & Hauspie, was about to leave for Singapore and points east when we spoke to him at CeBIT. He was going to be talking to manufacturers interested in making the L&H handheld device (it desperately needs a code name) for 20,000-word vocabulary speech recognition, packaged with the RealSpeak text-to-speech engine to make it a two-way voice device. The device runs on Linux, with Red Hat being used for the prototype, but there is no decision yet as to which distribution would be used in the production model. Internet access can be through spoken commands, with output either via synthesised voice or viewable on a cunningly-concealed display that pivots out sideways from the body of the device. Although Bastiaens could give no date for availability, it appeared that he would be disappointed if it were not available by the end of this year. The prototype is connected by a wire, but the production model would be wireless. Pricing cannot be decided until the manufacturing cost is known, but there is a feeling that $500 is a target. More broadly, Bastiaens said that he sees the potential market size for speech and language products as being at least $12 billion/year by 2002, with half coming from transcription of medical and legal procedures, a quarter from telephony and embedded applications, $2 billion from speech dictation, and $1 billion from speech components. L&H decided that the market would be best expanded by encouraging other companies to enter the market, so consequently ten "language valleys" like the Flanders Valley are being set up around the world, each receiving $10 million from L&H if funds are matched by government. This year, Bastiaens said he expects the company to pass the $500 million barrier in revenue ($344m in 1999). The assets consist mostly of 1400 speech engineers, linguists and software developers. Despite its strategic relationship with Microsoft (which owns 7 percent), and the presence of Bernard Vergnes, the chairman of Microsoft Europe, on the board, Bastiaens assured us he had a free hand as to what relationships he formed. It does seem that the coming user interface is the human voice, and that we may well be seeing the beginning of not exactly a post-Windows world, but at least a significant alternative user interface. Voice products are expected across a wide domain - servers, thin clients, telephones of all kinds, PDAs and wearable PCs, in-car devices, digital TV, and in plain old home PCs ("domotics" is the word muttered by these linguistic types). Strategically, L&H would have separate legal entities for the internet applications, healthcare and enterprise/telecom, Bastiaens said. The big market driver is likely to be WAP, which is projected to have a billion subscribers having devices by 2004. We asked Bastiaens if he had considered changing the name of the company, in view of the frequency with which it is misspelt.  "L&H is fine," he said. ®

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