SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - The next time you need a quick bit of information from the Net, you may not need to boot up your PC. With a new type of service called voice portals, you can use a phone and your voice to retrieve up-to-date traffic and weather reports, financial news, stock quotes, restaurant reviews, and other useful morsels. The services may appeal to business travelers and people who already depend heavily on cell phones for convenience.
You have little to lose by trying voice portals, since they are free. (The companies make their money by playing short, unobtrusive ads.) The business idea has promise, says International Data Corp. analyst Dana Thorat, who predicts that the idea will catch on once consumers understand it. Down the line, the voice portal companies want to add shopping functions.
I tested three new voice portal services--Quack.com, Shoutmail, and a prerelease version of Tellme--to see how they measure up. My verdict: The services work--usually. When speech recognition errors intrude (and some of those mistakes can be gross), it's frustrating. Due to the limits of cell phone coverage, your call sometimes ends unexpectedly. And of course, voice portals can't give you the breadth of the Web: Instead of surfing, you're choosing from the bits of data that the companies choose to provide.
Quack Me Up
Quack.com, the easiest to use, provides information in six basic categories: stocks, weather, traffic, sports, movies, and restaurants. Registration at the Web site is simple; you can also sign up for information specific to your locale. For instance, you can get a quick or extended forecast of weather conditions in a particular city where you'll be traveling. When you're on the phone with Quack.com, it expands searches as you answer questions posed by an amiable automated host.
But not everything is just ducky. Today's voice recognition technology gets you only so far. When I tried the traffic feature in and around San Francisco, the automated host had trouble understanding me on several occasions. I kept repeating "101 South," but the system mysteriously interpreted my words as "Portola Drive," a country lane by comparison. Another time, I requested a traffic report for Interstate 280 but the service misunderstood what I said, and then repeatedly failed to recognize a simple "No."
Shoutmail, a worthy competitor, offers more categories of information--even horoscopes and plot summaries of soap operas if you are so inclined. Most people will use its e-mail, weather, and business news capabilities, all configured on a personalized MyShoutmail Web page. Shoutmail is less voice-interactive than Quack.com; instead, you mostly scroll through menus and select information with the phone's keypad. That means you won't be repeating phrases over and over--but it also limits car use (scrolling and driving don't mix well).
Dial M For Mail
Shoutmail allows you to retrieve messages from your personal or office e-mail account using any phone, including a Web-enabled cell phone. (You can also set up an e-mail account with Shoutmail.) E-mail delivery worked well in my tests.
Though the herky-jerky computerized voice that read my e-mail sometimes sounded garbled, I became accustomed to it.
Tellme, the last voice portal I tried, offers the same typesof information, plus some unique helpers. For example, simply say an airline's name, and Tellme connects you to its reservation number. This worked flawlessly each time I tried it. Tellme's Phone Booth feature grants you free 2-minute phone calls from your cellular or regular phone. That's a nice money-saver for quick cell phone calls.
I tested a trial version of Tellme; the final version is expected to launch by late July or early August. Overall, it had more trouble with speech recognition than the other portals did. For instance, it took me a few redials to access the restaurant database using voice commands, and when I did access the menu, the software rarely understood my words, or it misinterpreted them altogether.
However, keep in mind that its speech recognition may improve with the final version. According to a Tellme representative, future versions will work more simply; they won't require on-site registration or a PIN to connect to the service.
For now, I would recommend Quack's service for its ease of use, or Shoutmail for its e-mail capabilities and wealth of customizable information. But keep your ears open--new services will debut in the next few months.