Say It, Don't Surf It

SAN FRANCISCO (06/14/2000) - The Web is getting louder, with another voice joining the growing chorus of sites you can surf by telephone.

BeVocal Inc. launched a service this week that connects you by phone to real-time stock quotes, local weather, traffic reports, airline information, and point-to-point directions. It is the latest company to join the verbal Web fray. Each service provider does it differently, but essentially all mix speech recognition technology, prerecorded voice responses, and text-to-speech technology to find and dispense information without human help.

BeVocal is one of the first to roll out its portal nationwide, although its driving directions are available only in California. That service will be available throughout the United States within the next several months, the company says. Competitors TellMe Networks, HeyAnita, and Talk2 Technology are each still in test mode.

BeVocal and others hope to win a big piece of the voice portal pie, estimated to hit US$11 billion by 2005, according to Mark Plakias, a vice president of the market research firm Kelsey Group. Voice portals make money on transaction fees, advertising, and hosting third-party voice portals.

The primary goal of such services is to give cellular phone users access to real-time information with minimal hassle. But voice portals can also be an easy-to-use tool for anyone who wants access to Internet content.

Be Vocal With BeVocal

The BeVocal service costs nothing. To access it, you call a toll-free number (1-800-4BVOCAL) that links you to a massive database of information and real-time services. By using simple voice commands you can, for example, check on traffic for your commute or the weekend weather forecast.

When you say "weather," for example, BeVocal offers a local forecast or the option to specify a different locale. For directions, you call BeVocal and state clearly your location and a destination address. Through a partnership with America Online's MapQuest, BeVocal responds with spoken driving directions that you can pause or fast-forward. You can also bookmark your BeVocal sessions, so you can call back and check directions at the next turn.

"When these services work well, it's magic. When they don't, it is the equivalent of the Internet's worldwide wait," Plakias says.

During an informal review, the service recognized my voice without any training about 90 percent of the time. Time delays between requests and answers are minimal.

For now, the service is ad free, but BeVocal plans to add short ads between information requests. The company will also accept sponsorships, so BeVocal might tell you that the weather is brought to you by XYZ Company.

BeVocal can help you find local businesses, such as the nearest Federal Express drop box. Similar resources will be added, says Amol Joshi, BeVocal cofounder.

But while dozens of BeVocal competitors are clamoring to offer service, consumer demand has been, well, quiet.

"All of these portals are facing some unknowns as far as call volumes," Plakias says. He expects consolidation among the estimated 30 companies offering similar services.

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