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Mind Share

February 2000


Marc Robins Look Who's Talking Now!


Given the speed of change and development in this age of the Internet, I really shouldn’t 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 provider’s 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.

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 aren’t 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 I’ve 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 company’s 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 Systems.

The objectives of the purchase: To voice-enable Phone.com’s 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.com’s 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 banner ads.

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 who’s 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.

Tellme’s technology development is run by Hadi Partovi and Angus Davis, a 21-year-old “Netscapee” who worked on the company’s 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 tools.

Unfortunately, there’s still not a great deal to chew on regarding Tellme’s 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 Tellme’s “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.

Here’s 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.

An interesting “spin” I’ve 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 it’s really only looking at one-half of the equation. As cell phones acquire data functions, so are PDAs acquiring voice functions (just look at Qualcomm’s pdQ smartphone — a combo PCS phone and PalmIII gizmo. Somehow, my instincts tell me the situation won’t be so cut and dry (and I, for one, ain’t ready to give up my Palm by a long shot!) What do you think? I’d 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.

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