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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Singing a New Tune: 'Speak and Go' Portals Give Voice Access to E-Mail, Web

November 12, 2000|LAURA BLY

Remember "point and click"?

Thanks to a new generation of voice recognition technology, travelers can now "speak and go" by using a telephone for everything from checking e-mail and flight times to getting turn-by-turn driving directions to the nearest sushi bar.

Rather than relying on the tiny buttons and hard-to-read displays of Web-enabled phones and other wireless devices, BeVocal, Tellme, HeyAnita and dozens of other recently launched "voice portals" let users access Internet information by calling a toll-free number from any phone, either mobile or land line-based. The catch: You'll have to listen to a short advertisement first.

Major portals Yahoo! and America Online are getting into the act as well, providing free voice access to e-mail, weather reports, sports scores and stock quotes.

But for all the buzz surrounding what some pundits are calling computing's next killer application, surfing the Web with a phone instead of a keyboard remains "overpromoted and underappreciated," according to a recent report by industry analyst Jupiter Communications.

For starters, callers must deliver their requests in a loud, clear voice, and unusual accents or intrusive background noise (like that at an airport terminal) can snarl the process.

And because most people can't process more than a few options at one time, access to complicated content or instructions (like driving directions) can be problematic. Here's a look at some of the industry's biggest players and how they're targeting travelers:

* America Online (keyword: AOL by Phone): Launched last month as part of its new version 6.0 software, AOL by Phone lets AOL's 25 million members check e-mail, U.S. weather, news and stock quotes by calling (800) AOL-1234. Members have to register online first. (For security reasons, only the member's master screen name is permitted.) The service is free until February, when the cost will be an additional $4.95 per month on top of the monthly membership fee of $21.95. Though traffic reports, restaurant reviews and movie listings will be available soon, the current service is hardly riveting: E-mails are read aloud in a slow, nasal, computerized voice, and users can only save or delete, not reply to those they hear.

* BeVocal (http://www.bevocal.com or [800] 4BVOCAL): A free service, BeVocal stands out from the pack for its nationwide driving directions (powered by MapQuest), updated flight information for major domestic and international airlines, and a new feature that gives directions to and connects callers with more than a million U.S. businesses, including hotels, restaurants, taxi and rental car companies and gas stations. Note: Although BeVocal's driving directions include both "pause" and "go back" options, it's hard to imagine relying on them for a long and/or complicated itinerary.

* HeyAnita (http://www.heyanita.com or [800] 44-ANITA): Expect lots of theatrical flair on this free service, which introduces its weather reports (available for most U.S. and international cities) with the sound of thunder followed by tweeting birds. Its "flight tracker" feature even gives you the altitude and speed of your selected flight, along with such crucial details as estimated arrival time. In the amusing but dubiously useful category: "Cool tools," which includes a measurement conversion guide and tip calculator that bases the tip on the level of service you've received. Just what every math-challenged diner needs--as long as your companions don't mind you barking commands into a cellular phone.

* Tellme (http://www.tellme.com or [800] 555-TELL): Rather than provide flight information, Tellme connects callers directly to one of more than 150 airlines (the free service will also place a free call to major hotel and car rental chains and taxi companies). Although its still-in-preview driving directions have some bugs, including the inability to begin a trip from an airport or other major landmark rather than a specific address, Tellme's restaurant feature shows promise: You can search for candidates based on name or type of cuisine, listen to a Zagat review, if available, and be connected directly to the restaurant to make reservations.

* Yahoo! (http://phone.yahoo.com): For now, users of Yahoo!'s free new voice portal ([800] MY-YAHOO) must enter numbers on a touch-tone telephone keypad rather than ask for information (which includes e-mail, sports scores, stock quotes, weather and headline news). But Yahoo!'s e-mail and voice mail services are a potential boon to travelers: Once you sign up online for an e-mail account with Yahoo! and call the toll-free number, you can reply to the e-mails you've listened to by speaking a response, which is e-mailed to the original sender as an Internet address that points him or her to an audio file. What's more, friends and family can call (800) MY-YAHOO, punch in your mailbox number and leave a voice message, which you can then pick up for free from any computer with a Web browser and built-in speakers.

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Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Feedback is welcome at lsbly@aol.com.

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