Nuance Announcement Could Signal the Death of Darby

On June 18th, Nuance Communications issued a brief press release stating that Nuance Voice Search will be an integral part of "future Directory Assistance services" at Verizon. Given the three-year agreement between Tellme Networks, Verizon LiveSource and VoltDelta providing a foundation for Verizon's automated handling of DA calls, the announcement raises more questions than it answers.

The troika of technology providers creates the foundation for "Darby," the automated operator who fields the vast majority of 411-based calls from Verizon fixed-line customers. In addition, Tellme, with live agent back-up from LiveSource (and others), has been the automated DA vendor to AT&T Wireless -- first as AT&T Wireless, then Cingular and now AT&T Wireless again. "Darby," named after long-standing voice talent Darby Bailey, is the product of significant tweaking and tuning of Nuance's core automated speech technologies by Tellme Networks (along with other components from Cantata and Envox, as well as VoltDelta).

The announced Nuance agreement signals that Verizon is backing a number of approaches to offering responses to customer queries, be they traditional DA "what city? what listing?," billing questions or product searches. Because U.S. telcos inherited so much core technology from Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies) they have maintained a schism betweeen "business office" functions (sales, marketing, customer care) and directory assistance (DA) . The former was reached through a traditional telephone number or the abbreviated "611" dialing code; the latter was available by dialing either 555-1212 or 411. Verizon's agreement to work with Nuance Voice Search signals an acceleration of the trend toward marrying traditional DA, service delivery and traditional customer care.

The future services that Verizon contemplates will most likely start with pushing a button and speaking a query rather than dialing a number and reacting to prompts. The collective efforts of Nuance, Verizon, Tellme and a cohort that includes V-Enable, VoiceSignal (which is being purchased by Nuance), Ydilo (in Spain) and Vodafone, among others, heralds the era of P-T-DA (Push To Do Anything) that enables callers to use their voice to carry out everyday business.