Hot New E-Mail Device: The Phone

SAN FRANCISCO (07/18/2000) - As more people seek convenient, around-the-clock access to their e-mail, many services have sprung up that let you check your e-mail messages over the telephone.

Companies such as Orchestrate.com integrate voice, e-mail, and fax services into "unified" messaging systems that can be managed over a standard telephone.

"Voice portals" such as Shoutmail turn Web-based information, including e-mail, into audio.

Somewhere in between fall companies--such as Vocalis Group PLC --that let subscribers listen to and manage their e-mail by phone, without having to buy any additional hardware. Vocalis' SpeechMail service has been available in the United Kingdom for about two years, according to the company, which counts British Telecommunications PLC among some 50 Internet service providers it calls partners.

In July, Vocalis broke into the U.S. marketplace by announcing a partnership with WI.net, a Houston-based ISP. Recently, it announced another with Teleconomico, another Houston ISP that also runs HotTelephone.com, a free Internet telephony service.

For $5.99 monthly, Vocalis offers you unlimited access to the service, but you have to dial a number in the 713 area code. So unless you live in the Houston area, long-distance charges will apply. You can also choose a toll-free option, but that service has monthly charges of $5.99 for 30 minutes, $7.99 for 60 minutes, and $9.99 for 90 minutes.

The advantage of such services is obvious: You can manage your e-mail from the road without having to invest in costly hardware like Web-enabled cell phones or other handheld devices.

You don't have to be a subscriber to any particular ISP to take advantage of SpeechMail. You can sign up at the Vocalis Web site. You supply your e-mail address, password, and other information, and Vocalis supplies you with an account number, PIN, and telephone number to call to hear your messages read aloud.

Voice Response to E-Mail

When you call and log in, SpeechMail tells you how many messages you have and then reads the headers--sender, time, and subject. You then have the option of playing the message, deleting it, or replying. If you choose to reply, you record a voice message that is sent as a .wav file to your e-mail response.

With other similar services, you manage your mail by hitting numbers on the telephone keypad, but SpeechMail allows you to do it all by voice command.

Most of the time this works well. When I tried it, however, it sometimes responded to my voice commands of "continue," "stop," and "next" by replaying the previous message from the beginning. Also, I occasionally had trouble understanding the computerized voice reading the messages; the inflections, phrasing, and pronunciations were odd--like a bad actor reading an unfamiliar script.

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