The age of voice-driven computer input is upon us, an IBM technology chief has claimed.

IBM’s general manager of voice systems, WS 'Ozzy' Osbourne, made the claim at the Speech Fair at IBM's Santa Teresa Laboratory in San Jose, at which he demonstrated prototypes of IBM’s voice-recognition technology.

Osborne said: "Voice will be integral to computing, as devices change from PCs to handhelds. The interface will have to change. Carrying around a keyboard will be too hard."

Web and voice technologies are already being wed via wireless phones and with the help of a pending standard, called VoiceXML,Web content can be accessed by phone, or interrogated orally. Already, 64 developers support VoiceXML, which uses Enterprise Java Beans.

Osborne said: "The cell phone is the ultimate thin client. Human interface is what we're really working on."

A snap-on speech recognition base for Palm devices is expected soon. A prototype was demonstrated at the Speech Fair.

IBM's Personal Speech Assistant Palm application allows navigation via a to-do list, the execution of several hundred commands, and access to an address book.

The integrated microphone offers a limited degree of noise cancellation, however, IBM's software is designed to compensate. Dictating a memo is as simple as holding down the record button and speaking into the unit's microphone. The prototype stores audio files in the base's 4MB of flash memory; IBM's compression scheme can compress 30 minutes of audio. The base can also be designed to accommodate removable media such as Compact Flash cards or a 340MB IBM Microdrive.

As speech technology is refined in real-life labs like IBM's, the challenge lies in meeting the high expectations of popular culture.

"Science fiction movies have created the expectation. We're not there yet, but we've made great steps," Osborne said.

In the meantime, IBM will test another prototype at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. It's a smart, speech-enabled drinks machine. By adding an Internet connection, such a device could become a vertical application that alerts route masters when the drinks machine is malfunctioning or needs restocking.