Just say the word Need pizza? Want sports scores? Phone a voice portal for variety of Internet services

Friday, May 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - The Internet is ready to talk to anyone who can make a phone call.

Dozens of companies are launching so-called voice portals that will let telephone users connect free of charge to selected parts of the Web with no personal computer or specially equipped cell phone needed.

Simply dial a toll-free number, state your question and the Internet speaks back, providing real-time info on such topics as weather, traffic conditions, local movie times, sports scores and stock prices. Searching for Thai food in Tyler? Need directions out of Del Rio? Just call and ask.

These are not public services, of course. All are designed to sell products, either through advertising or quick, easy links to vendors.

Nonetheless, Web watchers project that voice portals will be a revolutionary development.

"I think it's going to be huge," says Megan Gurley, research analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston.

Analyst Mark Plakias of the Kelsey Group in Princeton, N.J., forecasts big bucks made soon: $5.4 billion in advertising and transaction fees in the next five years.

The companies themselves say they are bringing potential Internet access to millions, perhaps billions of people who don't like computers or don't have them.

"We wanted something my grandmother could use," says Alex Quilici, president of Quack.com, which debuted nationwide service in early April.

The coming explosion in "audio browsing" has been made possible by major advances in voice recognition. That technology converts human speech into digital signals that computers can receive and is compatible with specially coded Web content. Thus Alexander Graham Bell's 1875 invention makes its link to 21st-century commercial technology.

"The telephone now has a new purpose," says Ken Guy, co-founder of TelSurf Networks of Westlake Village, Calif. "This is the beginning of what I call the decade of speech."

And with it, people have a new way to be bombarded with advertising. Baseball scores on the portal Tellme, for example, are "brought to you by Power-Ade." A Hollywood production studio sponsors the movie listings.

For advertisers, the services offer the chance to tailor their messages to the individual. TelSurf customers, without giving their names, will provide profiles that include age, ZIP code, income level, marital status and number of children.

The ads will be directed accordingly. "We're not going to target a Pampers ad to a bachelor," Mr. Guy says.

Advertisers also will be able to track their effectiveness in minute detail. In its marketing materials, TelSurf promises sponsors that they will know "every ad heard by each member and their responses."

Limited Internet contact and e-mail retrieval via cell phones has become fairly common, but that requires inputting keystrokes on the device, and the content is displayed on the phone's dim, tiny screen. The new voice portals allow instant Web access from the pay phone at the corner gas station.

Callers respond to oral prompts with short answers such as "weather" and "Dallas" or "stocks" and "Microsoft." Within moments, the computer draws the data from selected Web pages and translates it into spoken word. It's the same technology that some airlines now use for their flight information phone lines, but with a far wider browsing range.

"It's the culture today," says Mr. Guy. "It's the 'I want what I want and I want it right away' culture."

As with Internet surfing from a computer, the phone experience can be imperfect. In the early going, bugs abound.
During a demonstration at Tellme headquarters, the computer was asked for Thai restaurant listings in Dallas and responded with fast-food outlets on the first try. A second attempt was successful.

A call to Quack.com's service (1-800-73-QUACK) met with similar results. Asked for traffic conditions on North Central Expressway in Dallas, the computer voice answered, "Most of my information is for major highways. I might have trouble understanding a smaller roadway."

But it did give the weather conditions in Barrow, Alaska, (snow) within 20 seconds of the request.

Most of the services, if they are working now at all, are in trial phases. Quack.com claims to be the only one launched nationwide - to a point. Its restaurant listings, for example, include only those in Minneapolis-St. Paul. More are promised.

Analysts expect as many as 30 such services to begin operations this year. Many are small companies with limited funding, so numerous nationwide ad blitzes are not in the offing.

Tellme, of Mountain View, has attracted much of the early attention by virtue of its backing. Some superstars of Silicon Valley venture capital financing have put $53 million into the company.

It also has one of the youngest start-up founders in the Valley, 22-year-old Angus Davis, who says he was kicked out of the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., for hacking into the school's phone system to make free calls.

He is additionally famous for spending nights in a bunk bed adjacent to his desk. "He sleeps with a pager and cell phone next to his head," says Tellme spokeswoman Marci Gottlieb.

Mr. Davis was not in evidence on a recent visit to Tellme's cavernous office, a tastefully decorated warehouse space. But CEO Mike McCue, 32, was on hand to predict a nationwide launch in June and profitability "in the near future."

Unlike some portals, Tellme will not rely on computer-generated voices. Real people - Tellme employees - pull information from the Web and record the information to be relayed to callers. For the food listings alone, Ms. Gottlieb says, that entailed recording 440,000 entries.

Customers will be able to use some voice portals anonymously. But the services hope callers will establish accounts with "phone wallets" - credit card numbers on file. Those would enable the caller to dial the portals and buy books and other goods from dealers such as Amazon.com.

The services will use varied means to recognize their callers. Some will be identified by phone number and some by personal identification codes. TelSurf plans to keep voice prints on file.

Other information will be collected if the customer is willing. The voice portal, for instance, might have in its databank your address as well as your preference in pizzerias and toppings. The result: "You pick up the phone and you say, 'Pizza,'" Mr. McCue says. "Twenty minutes later, you open your door and it's there."

Or, he added, "you'll be driving in your car listening to the radio, and you'll call and say, 'Tell me what song I just heard,' and you'll be able to buy it."

Mr. Guy of TelSurf, doing some future-gazing, took this concept a couple of steps further.

"You'll be driving in your car, and your phone will message you in some way," he says. "You'll answer, and it'll say, 'That item you've been wanting? There's a sale at the store at the next off-ramp. It's 40 percent off. Pull over, and we'll have it waiting for you.'

"You'll say, 'Fine, have them reserve two of them,'" Mr. Guy says. "Then you'll say, 'And find a place for me to have lunch within two blocks.'

"We'll know within 300 feet of where you are," he adds. "With your permission, of course. It's all voluntary."