Given the speed of change and development in this age of the Internet, I really
shouldnt be surprised by the flurry of activity in and the significant
infusions of capital into the phone-based browsing arena. But even for jaded
ole me, things have been happening faster than I ever imagined.
Since my -Mind Share column on phone-based browsing last
September, there have been a number of new entrants and interesting announcements
occurring in this apparently very hot space, which has morphed into what is now being
referred to as the voice portal market. Just to recap my previous column, I focused on the
underlying technology in this case VXML (for Voice eXtensible Markup Language), an
offspring of HTML that provides new voice-centric extensions that in essence, allow Web
content developers to include audio and telephonic functions in Web page code. The goal of
VXML is deceptively simple: To allow users to query Web servers anywhere in the world and
gain access to Web-based content by simply using their phones and their voices.
In practice, a user would be able to call into a voice browser by dialing a
regular phone number from any wireline or wireless phone. This voice browser would allow
the caller to surf the Web and interact with Internet and intranet applications hosted on
any Web server. An example of a typical application is a user who requests the flight
status for a specific flight by calling into the browser. The voice browser, using speech
recognition, recognizes the request and translates it into a URL for a travel service
providers Web server. The Web server processes the request and responds with a
VXML page. The browser interprets this page, and relays the flight information
to the phone surfer using prerecorded or synthesized voice.
OUT OF COMMITTEE AND INTO THE MARKETPLACE
What seemed like the stuff of standards committees just a few months ago has become a
major commercial undertaking. There a number of new, high profile start-ups and
news-making acquisitions that are stoking the fires under this very promising technology.
These Web voice portal plays arent without competition and challenges. Newcomers
like Tellme and @Motion
have recently turned heads, but a number of companies have been developing similar
technologies for a while, including Lucent Technologies,
Motorola, and ASPs like General Magic and Wildfire
Communications. In addition, specialized software is being developed at speech
technology companies such as Nuance and SpeechWorks. What follows are profiles of a few of
the companies Ive recently come across.
@Motion and Phone.com
Most recently, red-hot WAP pioneer Phone.com
formerly the micro-browser company Unwired Planet announced that it
will acquire @Motion, a Redwood Shores, CA-based wireless provider of voice portal
technology, for $285 million. The companys founders and management team come from l
net, and networking companies including Cisco Systems, Inc.,
3Com Corporation, Centigram
Communications, Inc., Sun Microsystems, Inc., Keynote Systems, and Telco
The objectives of the purchase: To voice-enable Phone.coms MyPhone mobile portal
and its UP.Link Server Suite WAP 1.1 platform, and in essence provide a voice interface to
WAP-enabled phones that allow a user to conduct e-commerce, surf the Web, and access
e-mail with simple voice commands. One of the odd benefits of this joining (considering
Phone.coms origins as a pioneer of Web-browsing on wireless devices) is that it
eliminates the requirement to have browsers embedded in the phone itself. The
smarts, so to speak, are instead resident on WAP-based voice portal servers
residing at the wireless service providers switching centers. In addition to voice
surfing capabilities, @Motion will add voice communications services such as virtual
assistant and unified messaging, and voice dialing from an address book.
The @Motion Server is a Windows NT, NEBS-compliant platform comprised of four main
subsystems: A telephony server, Web server, network storage/network backbone, and
firewall. The server is also designed to be highly scalable, able to support up to 10,000
ports, and to be flexible in terms of applications support due to its support of seven
different input/output methods, including voice, text-to-speech, DTMF (touch tones),
paging, Web browser, SMS (short messaging service), and WAP. This inherent flexibility in
design means the platform can serve as a large-scale e-mail and Web content server, as a
voice messaging and dialing platform, or both, for example.
The server is also designed to help wireless operators and new voice Web portal
providers to provision a host of sticky apps (what @Motion refers to as engagement
applications) that can be highly personalized for subscribers and produce such value
that they keep the user coming back for more. Examples of such apps include free e-mail,
personal address books, unified messaging, personal call management, and voice-activated
dialing. Other new revenue opportunities for service providers include locational
advertising, enhanced directory services, subscription alerts and fees for slotting, and
Tellme, founded about a year ago, is another voice portal technology company that has been
getting a lot of attention recently. Based in Palo Alto, CA, Tellme recently announced a
$47 million round of venture funding led by Benchmark Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield
Byers, and boasts a list of advisors and investors that reads like a high-tech whos
who, including the likes of Jim Barksdale and Brad Silverberg, a former top executive at Microsoft, and a team of members from top companies
such as Netscape, Microsoft, AOL, Goldman Sachs,
The Gap, WebTV, AltaVista, AT&T ,
Nokia, and PacBell.
Tellmes technology development is run by Hadi Partovi and Angus Davis, a
21-year-old Netscapee who worked on the companys next-generation
browser. Tellme has around 50 people on staff, and runs its operation in a former printing
plant. Like Phone.com/@Motion, Tellme is betting on the exploding wireless communications
market and the expectation that wireless devices be they PCS phones or wireless
data-ready PDAs will become the predominant Internet appliances and Web access
Unfortunately, theres still not a great deal to chew on regarding Tellmes
business or technology strategy. In fact, the company has been so hush hush that one gets
the feeling that it is still very much in the early planning stages. Among the items on
Tellmes to-do list are developing the right server platforms to handle
carrier-class traffic, and creating a competitive user interface and application software
suite to deliver the enhanced services operators are craving.
A third company I just learned about is called InternetSpeech, located in San Jose, CA.
InternetSpeech apparently plans to become a new Audio Internet Service
Provider, offering Internet access through a telephone and presenting the Web to
users in audio form. InternetSpeech has created an audio browser and service called
netECHO that will allow users get to the Internet to check e-mail, hear information on any
Web site, search, or perform e-commerce transactions, all through any phone.
According to the company, netECHO uses technology that integrates text-to-speech,
speech recognition, telephone interface, multimedia, and intelligent agents.
Differentiating the company from other Internet access services being developed, netECHO
does not require a phone with a visual display screen, a special intelligent phone, or
voice-enabled Web sites. Instead, subscribers to the service will be able to use any
phone, wired or wireless, to get to any Web site voice-enabled or not on the
Internet. According to company officials, the service will be available nationwide in the
first quarter of 2000 for a flat monthly fee.
Heres how it works: Subscribers dial a toll-free number to reach the netECHO
server, and are asked to say a password and logon ID. From there, they use simple voice
commands to check for new e-mail messages, surf, search, or trade on the Web. netECHO can
also be customized to meet the needs of the subscriber. For example, users can
bookmark their favorite pages, select a male or female reading voice, and
define the amount of information they want read at a time. Users can also select a default
home page, so someone interested in late-breaking news might select CNN or MSNBC as their
starting point. Customers who choose the InternetSpeech.com home page as their default
will find links to many popular Web sites, facilitating easy and quick access to important
information, including news, driving directions, stock quotes, and weather.
MAKING PDAs OBSOLETE?
An interesting spin Ive heard circulating around concerns the
impact this new voice portal technology will have on the booming PDA market. A number of
analysts and developers have been so bold as to state that voice portals, in combination
with existing cell phones, will put a strain on the PDA and handheld device market since
the need to buy a Web-ready PDA will be reduced. This is an interesting idea,
but its really only looking at one-half of the equation. As cell phones acquire data
functions, so are PDAs acquiring voice functions (just look at Qualcomms pdQ smartphone a combo PCS phone
and PalmIII gizmo. Somehow, my instincts tell me the situation wont be so cut and
dry (and I, for one, aint ready to give up my Palm by a long shot!) What do you
think? Id like to know.
Marc Robins is Associate Group Publisher for INTERNET TELEPHONY and
Communications Solutions (formerly CTI) magazines. His column, Mind Share, appears
monthly in the pages of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine. Marc
looks forward to your feedback.