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Voice portals promise Net-via-phones, but are they all talk?

Industry Standard

April 28, 2000
Web posted at: 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT)

(IDG) -- Engineers have been working on speech-recognition software for three decades, so once the Internet arrived it was only a matter of time before someone devised a way to navigate the Web by talking instead of clicking.

That moment has arrived. Last week TellMe Networks launched its pilot service, joining an expanding lineup of "voice portals" that aim to marry Internet browsing and the telephone. Using a conventional phone over a toll-free line, TellMe users can ask for information ranging from stock quotes to news, weather, traffic reports and restaurant information. TellMe retrieves the data from the Internet or its own databases and reads it back to the caller, accompanied by a short advertising spiel.

The idea, says TellMe CEO Mike McCue, is to make the Internet accessible to everyone whether or not they have access to a computer. There are 1.5 billion people with telephones, McCue says, and "anybody can call an 800 number and get access to all these things for free." Revenues will come from ads and sponsorship deals, as well as e-commerce fees; TellMe will also offer voice-portal hosting for other companies.

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TellMe has already gotten rave reviews from critics like Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Mossberg. But questions linger: Is speech-recognition technology ready for prime time? And are consumers eager to surf over the telephone?

With founders from the Netscape and Microsoft browser teams plus $53 million in backing from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, TellMe has stolen the thunder of earlier voice portals. TelSurf Networks, launched in early February, is similar to TellMe, except that it doesn't have any exclusive agreements, relying solely on the Internet for content. But TelSurf takes voice browsing a step further, giving callers limited access to live Web pages. TelSurf can access a caller's personalized Yahoo Web page, for instance, and check his e-mail.

The list of new phone-browsing entrants grows almost daily. BeVocal cofounder Amol Joshi says "location, location, location" is the key to his company's niche as a "v-services" provider. With software that recognizes a caller's location by street address, place name or even neighborhood, coupled with a growing network of national vendors, BeVocal plans to deliver localized services such as driving directions and local movie listings nationwide. In mid April, BeVocal announced it had secured $45 million in venture funding.

ShopTalk, by contrast, has ditched news and information offerings in favor of a purely commercial model. CEO and cofounder Eric Linn says ShopTalk is aimed at "busy moms" who are typically short on time and not always free to sit down at a computer. Using ShopTalk they can shop the Web via telephone after listening to targeted ads for special offers on products and services. Since launching under the name U-Access in early 1999 with a keypad-entry model, ShopTalk has signed up 250,000 people, with 25,000 more joining each month.

But will users of ad-based information services put up with the commercials? After all, an audio ad can't be ignored like a banner ad. TelSurf CEO Ken Guy plans to offer a premium service: Callers can pay 6 cents per minute to skip the ads.

Jeff Snyder, principal telecom analyst with Dataquest, notes that earlier experiences with free voicemail services are not encouraging. The initial sign-up rate was high. But people soon tired of having to listen to a 15-second ad before being able to check their mailbox, and the desertion rate was steep. "If [the ads] are seen as invasive and time-consuming," Snyder says, "people won't put up with it."

Voice browsing faces a more fundamental obstacle: The Internet is primarily a visual medium. "You can't just transfer an existing Web page into voice," says Snyder. "People hear information differently from what they read. The information has to be streamlined, and geared to aural, as opposed to visual, play."

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