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Innovation

At Last, an Internet Device That Really Is Simple to Use

May 22, 2000|CHARLES PILLER

Until now the "Internet appliance" industry, long predicted to eclipse the clunky, bug-ridden PC in usefulness and popularity, has spawned devices ranging from the mediocre to the silly.

Hand-held computers and cell phones can view a Cliff Notes version of a handful of Web sites, while Internet-linked refrigerators, picture frames and Web pads look like gimmicks designed to foster a cumbersome, machine-mediated lifestyle.

But I've finally found the first genuinely useful, practical, completely intuitive Web appliance. This device enjoys a breathtaking market advantage over any competitor and a consumer appeal that no other technology can touch: Nearly everyone already owns one and is an expert user. The appliance is the common telephone.

This is the Web experience your grandfather (assuming he's not a Web entrepreneur) can love. It's truly easy, offering Web-like services with no Web experience required and no waiting for pages to download.

Tellme Networks (http://www.tellme.com), a start-up based in Mountain View, Calif., works like this: Dial a toll-free access number, then you speak simple, menu-driven commands. That's it.

The service is expanding offerings as it gears up for its public launch in June, but the test version I tried includes:

* Stock quotes for most publicly traded U.S. companies.

* Restaurant listings across the country, organized by location and cuisine, with a free phone connection for reservations or directions.

* Instant connections to scores of airlines.

* Movie information for theaters across the country.

* Free phone calls of up to two minutes, anywhere in the country.

* News reports and sports scores.

* Traffic reports for many metropolitan areas and weather reports for some 35,000 locales.

* For people with time on their hands: audio blackjack, daily horoscopes and soap opera updates.

Tellme understood what I was asking for about 90% of the time when I was speaking from my home or office; if the command I gave was consistent with the menu structure, the service nearly always caught it on the second try. (Using a cell phone on the street gives the service a bit more trouble.)

It's the response that's the ear-opener. Unlike the computerized tones of phone company directory assistance, Tellme sounds pleasingly natural. The company hired scores of readers to record millions of words and phrases for the names of cities, restaurants, movie theaters, and publicly traded companies.

Those canned sound elements are then combined with real-time data or audio feeds on affiliated Web-based services--CNN for news, ESPN for sports, and Tibco Software for stock quotes.

The company has cleverly prerecorded every imaginable increase or decrease in stock price (yes, it had Berkshire Hathaway Class A--down $500 to $59,200 a share in Friday trading), plus a number of market terms denoting various changes in value (such as "climbed" or "tumbled,") that give instant data a natural sound.

Likewise, it recorded every possible point combination along with terms like "edged" and "trounced" to give sports updates a dint of authenticity.

Tellme is free to users and easy; there is nothing techie about it.

"I wanted to build something that my mom would use and understand," said Michael McCue, the company's chief executive and formerly a top technologist at Netscape Communications. "The everyday normal consumer who is fed up with technology angst and the complexity that's come about from the rise of Internet can still use the Internet."

I'd guess that the system will appeal equally to cell phone users who are fumbling for directions or dialing to switch an airline reservation while driving; a speed-dial setting to Tellme could prevent a few accidents.

The catch? Advertising, of course.

The company sells brief blurbs that introduce its various topics ("Tellme phone booth, brought to you by AT&T"), and slightly longer (5- to 8-second) ads before you get your free phone call.

Within a few months the company will probably supplement this revenue by selling custom voice portals for corporations and will gain commissions based on a "voice wallet" that allows users to store their credit card and shipping information with Tellme's computer servers for instant purchases from Web or bricks-and-mortar stores.

To be sure, Tellme is a work in progress. Will the technology operate as smoothly with millions of users as it does with a few thousand on the trial system? And voice-recognition inevitably struggles when the talker has a heavy accent--a problem that could grow dramatically when Tellme rolls out the service in other languages, as it plans to do later this year.

But Tellme's prospects are boosted by its heavyweight backers: former Netscape Communications CEO Jim Barksdale, former top Microsoft Corp. executive Brad Silverberg, and the leading venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

The company also has plenty of competitors--TelSurf Networks, BeVocal and Talk2, among others, offer similar models.

I tried another rival, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Quack.com, and got an earful of reasons why such services could quickly fail.

Quack's menus are ponderous and inefficient. Lengthy, out-of-context ads (such as a movie promotion interrupting a sports update) were like obnoxious kibitzers at every turn. I had to hang on for 90 seconds--and listen to three separate ads--to get a single stock quote. And Quack's voice often sounded stiffly computer-like.

But I'm betting that Tellme and some of its rivals will help liberate the Internet for technophobes. And the voice-portal concept offers some genuine hope that simple, useful information appliances might someday liberate the rest of us from the tyranny of the PC.

*

Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at charles.piller@latimes.com.

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