IBM's Rod Smith: Voice is the key to 'conversational commerce'

DALLAS -- Consumers and businesspeople are increasingly looking to access information quickly, on the go, and from specific devices. And according to Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging internet technologies, voice is how they want to ask for it.

Like some other technologies, speech-recognition software for years failed to live up to users' expectations, often butchering syntax and delivering worthless search results. But uptake of voice-driven offerings has risen as the technology has improved, and as users have learned how to talk to their devices.

"Part of what we've seen in the last two years… is people want to use voice" to access content and navigate with their devices, Smith said here during his keynote address at the annual event hosted by the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which rebranded this week from PCIA. "Things that were very difficult and expensive five years ago are now becoming mainstream."

Smith said users are beginning to experience "app fatigue" from having to endure a plethora of user interfaces and navigational tools on so many different apps. Instead, he discussed "conversational commerce," a concept through which users could access personalized, web-based content and services with minimal effort.

That concept could be used on a wide variety of hardware platforms, from TVs to laptops to dedicated devices like Amazon's Echo. But it may be most valuable on smartphones, where small touchscreens and a lack of a physical keypad make navigation challenging.

Smith said that while voice navigation and conversational commerce may be most apparent in consumer use cases, they're gaining traction in enterprise markets such as automotive, logistics, and hospitality and concierge services.

And conversational commerce will become much more valuable, he said, as developers continue to leverage big data to make voice recognition more accurate and to deliver highly contextual results based on a variety of factors. So a voice query from one user at a specific time and place might yield very different results than the same query from another user in a different scenario.

"There's a lot of information to put things in the right context," Smith said. "This is a race that's just begun."

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