For smartphone makers, speech-to-speech translation is key to success

Beam me up Scotty, this planet sucks

Since Google announced that it was shutting down its Translate API last Friday, many of the top bloggers in the translation industry as well as some of the broader tech blogs (like PC Magazine, ZDNet, GigaOm and Engadget) tried to analyze this move. All of it remains guesswork at this point, since Google has kept their precise motives to themselves.

I’d like to offer one more possible reason that the machine translation market has gotten so hot all of a sudden: it’s all about dominance in the smartphone market. Everybody is talking about smartphones lately, and most people either own one or are planning to buy one. Smartphone sales are through the roof in most parts of the world.

Speech-to-speech translation, what people commonly refer to as the Babel Fish, has captured the minds of many. What was once a device only seen on Star Trek reruns has become something that is about to happen. People will be able to speak and listen in their own language, regardless of the language used by the person at the other end of the line. This is perceived as a killer app, one that will sell smartphones. Whoever takes the lead in this technology will gain a serious advantage in the smartphone market. The stakes are high and the big companies are gearing up for battle.

Google has introduced speech-to-speech translation on Android smartphones. In a previous blog post, I suggested that one of the reasons that Google is shutting down the API is to prevent other companies from using Translate to power apps on competitive platforms.

Microsoft has a very active MT program and has demonstrated their speech-to-speech system in operation. Now that they have bought Skype, its isn’t hard to imagine Microsoft taking a dominant position in speech-to-speech translation on smartphones.

IBM also has a very active MT program and wrote the book on speech recognition technology. Click here for a demo of their speech-to-speech translation system.

Apple is a company that is seemingly way behind the previous three, as they have no MT program in place. In a blog post I wrote over a year ago, I entertained the notion that IBM would power speech-to-speech on the iPhone. On April 1, 2011 I posted an April Fools post that Apple was buying SDL to create a new language division. As the smartphone wars heat up, maybe such ideas won’t be so far-fetched.

Now that free machine translation APIs are becoming more restricted, other smartphone makers like Nokia, RIM and Samsung will either have to tap into paid APIs or develop their own MT technology if they want to compete in speech-to-speech translation.

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