Speech recognition looks like it is moving ever closer with software supremo Microsoft getting behind it in a big way. This week the company unveiled the first preview of its .Net Speech Platform.

The Speech Platform bundles Microsoft's speech recognition engine along with the software required to connect it to a telephony system, the tools to allow applications to understand the spoken word and a text-to-speech engine.

The .Net Speech Platform will give developers and customers a foundation to design a single application that can run a speech-enabled application in a variety of venues, including telephony, desktops and on mobile devices. The platform is expected to enter beta testing next summer and ship by the end of 2003.

Although still in pre-beta, this is the first real look at Microsoft's speech technology. One industry analyst said it is the first proof point that Microsoft is serious about speech.

"This is more than a toe in the water," said Brian Strachman, senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR.