MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The "voice portal" industry is trying to jump-start the young medium by giving businesses and consumers the ability to create their own "voice Web sites."
Voice portals enable telephone users to browse stock quotes, movie schedules and other Web-like services on a voice-activated system that can be accessed by calling a toll-free number.
The voice portals of Tellme Networks Inc., Quack.com Inc. and BeVocal Inc. have been closed services, not unlike supercharged versions of America Online Inc.'s Moviefone or call-in weather report numbers. But the companies now are opening up their technologies, allowing other companies and even individuals to build their own versions of the voice sites.
"This is all about bringing the phenomenon of the Web to the telephone," said Mike McCue, chief executive of Mountain View, Calif.-based Tellme. "We want thousands of developers to be able to do all the creative work they did on the Web."
Tellme on Wednesday released the most accessible service, in which would-be developers can build voice sites accessible over the phone and actually host them live on Tellme's phone network.
Tellme primarily hopes to persuade big companies to create their own voice-accessible sites, and it ultimately wants to add access to companies such as Amazon.com Inc. or EBay Inc. to its own core service.
But the new campaign also promises to create something similar to Yahoo Inc.'s GeoCities for the voice world, where for the first time, individuals can set up their own home pages for phone access, linking them by voice commands to anything else accessible on this quickly developing phone version of the Web.
Analysts say the company is on the right track with its new service.
With the release of this flurry of new tools and services, the voice portals and the technology companies supporting them are making a bid to expand both the developer base and the customer base that will use the services. Scores of companies focused on this voice market have emerged in recent months, and many analysts say demand in the market is unlikely to support them all. The leading companies have nevertheless attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture funding and investments from the telecommunications giants.
The young companies are finally turning their medium into something that is looking more and more like the early days of the Web.
Many of them have portrayed themselves this way since the beginning, adopting the "portal" designation for the voice-accessible range of stock quotes, sports scores, traffic and weather information. Some, but not all, have designed their services to read content directly off ordinary Web pages.
But what was lacking--as is still largely lacking in the wireless Web world--is the ability for individuals to launch their own home pages, creating the kind of mass content that helped give the Web its momentum in the early days before it became commercialized.
"We're really trying to build the developer community," said Steve Ehrlich, vice president of marketing for Nuance Communications Inc., whose technology is used by Tellme, BeVocal and other prominent portals. "It is so important for the industry to grow." This week, Nuance held a developer conference that attracted close to 900 people, the company said.
Voice portals run on computer programming languages similar to those used for Internet sites.
Tellme's developer site, for instance, enables people with computer programming skills to write in a user-friendly language called VXML, or voice markup language. BeVocal and others have created more advanced applications, which they're giving away to developers trying to create their own sites.