Former Disney Exec Leaves Net World for Telco

The trend for IT staffers is to jump from traditional companies to online start-ups. Chafic Najia made an unusual transition. The former Walt Disney Co. executive left the land of Mickey Mouse for Vox Generation Ltd., a London-based start-up developing what could be the first natural-language voice portal for mobile-phone users.

A beta version will be available in December for European users, but no date has been set for U.S. customers. Vox Communications is hitting the wireless market at the right time. According to International Data Corp., 1.32 billion people worldwide will access the Web by mobile phones by 2004, Vox Generation said.

Najia took over the reins as Vox CEO in July. Prior to joining the start-up, he was senior vice president and managing director of GO.com International, the non-U.S. part of Disney's Internet business. He built Disney's online international presence from the ground up and later managed all aspects of its international business during his five-year tenure.

He talked about why he left traditional business for start-ups, what the voice portal is, and what it will do for customers.

Why did you leave Disney and what is the difference you've noticed between an established media company vs. a start-up?

A: The reason I did is that there's something revolutionary here. Large traditional companies have assets or branding, and they want to build on this.

[But it prevents] them from flexibility, and frankly, the need to do something revolutionary. I wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper, no legacy issues.

There's a lot of needs that can be fulfilled with the freedom only a start-up has.

Why appeals to you about voice portal technology?

A: We're leveraging voice recognition with an additional layer with a speech user interface that makes the language more natural. [It's a] way to create the interface to reflect how the human mind comes to recognize voice. The speech user interface is a task-based navigation process, while most Web sites are menu-based, and navigate logically from the home page, then secondary page....

We've hired top linguistics -- computation linguistics and psycholinguistics -- to help create a map of how the mind works when dealing with voice interface as opposed to visual.

How is this technology different from your competitors?

A: The companies in the voice portal segment, which are all in the United States, are Tellme [Networks Inc.], BeVocal [Inc.] and Quack.com [Inc.], but we don't view them as the competition, but as other players. They don't do the same exact thing as we're doing; [their products] mostly allow people to surf the Web [using wireless devices]....

What services does the natural voice portal offer? What features will the portal include?

A: It will offer all e-mail [dictation and reading] through voice. People are on the go, and we're all hooked on e-mail but we have to [go to the office to see it while it can be] managed by mobile phone. Users can manage their appointment book literally with a personal assistant. You can schedule meetings and cancel meetings.

You can book travel through v-commerce, or voice commerce. It offers travel services and gift buying.

You can choose the virtual personal assistant to be different personalities -- young, old, serious, male, female. The service will have information on credit cards to do v-commerce, and you don't have to repeat anything. You can take e-mail, transactions, information alerts on news and sports.

Who is the target audience?

A: The premise of the idea is [for the portal to] be used by people who are very comfortable with technology and who want another medium to stay in touch.

Another target are those that aren't comfortable with PCs, but with phones. A third market would be the visually impaired, who could use the voice interface to access the Internet.

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