Speak Easy

Has the wireless Web met its match?
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the December 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Now that voice portals have arrived, you make the call: Are they merely a slight improvement over frustrating voice mail, or will they emerge as a major new medium that rivals the wireless Web?

Voice-activated services such as BeVocal (800-4-B-VOCAL) and Tellme Networks (800-555-TELL) have launched nationwide networks, providing voice-recognition menus where spoken keywords summon sound bites in either text-to-speech synthesis or recorded audio. Staples include news, sports, weather, stocks, traffic updates and movie listings. Some services offer driving directions, horoscopes, personalization features and even text-to-speech e-mail. But voice portals aren't really portals at all. Rather, they're designed to provide snippets from a fairly limited selection of major content sources.

Start-ups have been piling on the trend, including AirTrac.net, Audiopoint, HeyAnita, Mobilee, NetByTel, PhoneRun, TelSurf Networks' 888TelSurf and Tellsoft Technologies' iTalkWeb. The Kelsey Group predicts the voice-portal industry will represent a $12 billion "voice e-cosystem" by 2005, with more than $5.6 billion of that revenue generated from sales of the services.

Drive-time information such as traffic and directions are the main draw, says Rachel MacAulay, a Kelsey Group analyst for voice and wireless commerce. For drivers, she explains, voice portals have safety and convenience advantages over the wireless Web. "You're not going to drive and look at your tiny phone screen," she says.

Some analysts are skeptical about the services' revenue models and long-term consumer appeal. Almost all the services are free, but most are sprinkled with short ads. Many demand registration and require a password. Will consumers bother to remember passwords, and will they stay on long enough to hear ads?

Thanks to support from AT&T, front-runner Tellme Networks lures new users by skimping on ads and forgoing registration. Tellme is concentrating its efforts on seeding the market with open-source licensing of voice-activated site-creation tools. With customer calls costing businesses about $5 apiece, custom voice portals open up intriguing support and marketing possibilities. Others see the technology's text-to-speech focus as a pathway to universal messaging. Companies such as NetByTel and Tellsoft, for example, sell business portal kits with integrated applications such as call-center support, e-commerce, e-mail and scheduling. The technology could also be integrated with car computers and location-based GPS to improve driving directions and steer consumers toward offline stores.

Mainstream players are entering the market, too. Lycos struck a deal with Mobilee to launch its voice portal, and Lucent teamed up with PhoneRun and Worldcom to launch a voice-activated, radio-style "phonecasting" portal. Expect to see more phone company investments in these players, followed by voice-portal services showing up as another cheap, extra-cost option bundled into your phone service. We'll also see phone-portal ISPs that offer the same content destined for both WAP smart-phone screens and handset speakers. BeVocal is already heading in that direction.

Eric Brown, a regular contributor to PCWorld.com, is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.

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