At the recent SpeechTek 2014, I had an opportunity to sit down with Nuance’s Gregory Pal. Pal is Nuance’s Vice President, Strategy & Business Development, Enterprise Division. One thing that came across loud and clear as I spoke with Pal was the sheer size and breadth of Nuance. The intelligent assistant / virtual agent space is competitive and crowded these days, but Nuance is the undisputed 800-pound gorilla. Pal informed me that Nuance is segmented into four major divisions: Healthcare, Imaging, Mobile and Consumer, and Enterprise. The Enterprise division deals mainly with Business to Consumer solutions.
Nuance’s influence is wide-reaching. According to Pal, 75% of all Fortune 500 companies use Nuance products. 1 in 4 adult Americans are reached at least once a year by companies using an outbound Nuance communication solution. That’s some pretty extensive influence! In the Opus Research report on Enterprise Virtual Assistants published earlier this year, Opus rated Nuance as the top vendor.
When it comes to the intelligent assistant market, which is heating up, Nuance has funneled all its powerful technology into their Nina product. Nina has all the components required to make a successful web self-service, speech-enabled user interface for consumers. These include voice biometrics, speech recognition, natural language understanding, dialog management, and speech output services. The Nina product is also backed by a large professional services organization.
While Nina is in use by many companies for many different purposes, Pal was eager to talk about the recently released Domino’s app that features a branded assistant called “Dom.” After SpeechTek, I downloaded the Android version of the app and gave it a thorough trial. It turned out to be a fun and pleasant test experience. Dom is easy to work with. He has a pleasing voice and a patient personality: positive traits in someone you’re ordering pizza from when you can’t quite make up your mind what you want!
Dom first asks if you want to place a delivery order or a pick up order. I told him I wanted to pick up my order and he immediately showed me a screen of all the closest Domino’s locations. I didn’t even have the GPS on my smartphone activated, but the assistant was accurate in the list it provided. I picked the Domino’s just down the street from me and it set that as my store.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to order. Dom didn’t understand me when I asked what my choices were, but he understood when I asked for the menu. He showed me a very easy to read menu with photos of different food choices. I told him I wanted a pepperoni pizza and then he brought up three size choices and asked which I wanted. I like the fact that Dom’s questions are reinforced by images and text on the smartphone interface. I asked if he had any drinks and he answered enthusiastically “We’ve got some good ones!” Again, he showed a list of choices with images for reinforcement. I ordered a bottle of water and then I asked for two more. Dom added all of this to my shopping cart and it was very easy to visually confirm what was being added. The final step was to confirm the order and then go to a screen where I needed to type in my contact information.
I was very pleasantly surprised at how smoothly Dom led me through the entire ordering process. You need to keep in mind that there are no human ‘assistants’ working in the background of this Nina-driven app. It’s all pure machine technology. It’s not only impressive, but it’s practical as well. I can definitely see myself using this app, or a similar app, to order dinner.
I asked Pal if he was concerned at all about IBM Watson and if he sees Watson as a potential threat to their top spot in the intelligent assistant market. Pal believes that Watson and Nina are more complementary than directly competitive. Watson is a great tool for mining broad subject matter expertise. Nina, on the other hand, is flexible and can be configured to serve as a company’s branded representative, to carry on targeted conversations, and to integrate with useful apps like the Domino’s app.
I also asked Pal whether he was concerned about all the competition in the intelligent agent space. He recognizes the competition, but he knows that Nuance is playing with a bit of an unfair advantage. With so much technology and the ability to invest $300 million a year in research and development, it’s really tough for smaller players to keep up. The superior performance of intelligent assistants like Domino’s Dom proves that Nuance is going to be hard to displace from the top of the heap.