Technology

Challenging WAP?

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I’ve been looking a fair amount at how to get untethered from the Internet lately. While I have played with a wireless Palm and looked at WAP, there seemed to be something missing to the whole unconnected Internet issue.

What I came to realize is that what works for a computer does not necessarily work in a wireless environment. The main issue is input and output. A wireless Palm is great to get information but somewhat difficult to use to send out email (typing in graffiti being the biggest challenge so far) and WAP works well to get little bits and pieces of information but is limited to a set number of characters (depending on which version of WAP you’re using, you will get an allocation of between 1500 and 2000 characters). As a result, sending out something like this newsletter over WAP does not seem to make sense.

However, a new breed of services is now popping up and it could be the next big thing: connecting to the Internet by just dialing into a phone number. In order to test this out, I checked out several services: Tellme Networks, which launched last month to a barrage of publicity, and Quack, which has been quieter but is also launched. Other contender for the space (and all of those are launching “soon”) are Internet Speech, BeVocal, and 888TelSurf.

Tellme Networks

Mike McCue is no stranger to bleeding edge technology. I met Mike back in 1995, when he was running a company called Paper Software. Paper did VRML browser, at a time when VRML was not only cool but also seen as the potential future of the net. Netscape acquired his company and Mike ended up as VP of technology there. While there, he looked at the future of the Internet.

However, as many other Netscapees, Mike ended up leaving Netscape and founded a new company: Tellme Networks.

Their goal: to make the web as easily accessible as using a phone. Pulling talent from both sides of the browser war (Netscape and Microsoft), Tellme was a very secretive operations until a couple of months ago, when it announced its offering: a phone service that gives you access to news, weather, sports, stocks, movies and restaurant info.

An interesting concept but how well did it hold up? Would I be stuck in one of those horrible menus (press 1 to access news, press 2 to access stocks…) or would it be better, I wondered as I registered for the service. To my surprise, it worked very well.

There are a number of interesting features in this service. First of all is the text to speech engine, which is one of the best ones I’ve heard so far. It takes bits of information and relays them in a clear and understandable way, which I found quite amazing. The voice recognition algorithm also held up very well, clearly understanding what I was saying (for those of you who’ve heard me speak, you know I have a fairly strong French accent, which makes this all the more amazing).

But what about the selection? Well it is, in one word, adequate. Not great but not bad either. I was able to get stock quotes (an interesting feature allows you to use the touchpad to spell out a stock symbol if the service does not recognize the name of the company you gave it), grab the latest news from CNN (the only general news provider tellme offers), pick up the weather in New York, check out a movie schedule, get some restaurant info and be connected to the restaurant for reservations. Also interesting was the phonebooth, a feature that allows you to make 2 minutes phone calls anywhere in the US for free (brought to you by AT&T). All and all, I was impressed enough to save the number into my cell phone memory.

Quack

Quack offers basically the same things as tellme (with the exception of the phone booth) but requires you to set up personalization largely through the web. As a result, the service may seem a little kludgier. On the plus side, however, the voice recognition algorithm gets some points. For example, I requested stock price on Internet.com on both services. Tellme was unable to find Internet.com and asked me to enter in the stock symbol using the keypad. Quack immediately recognized the stock, gave me its symbol and, while playing ads, went on to retrieve the information. What was disappointing, however, was that their text to speech engine is not as advanced as tellme’s. The voice on the other end of the line was unmistakingly a computer when it came to particular bits of information (weather reports, stock quotes) compared to the syntax used by tellme.

Another plus for Quack is their caller-ID system: The service also recognized that my call was coming from New York and immediately gave me the weather report for that city (I had to request New York on tellme’s service).

All and all, I found very little difference between the two services, with the possible exception of Quack carrying traffic reports (which tellme did not offer when I tried it). However, since I am one of those New Yorkers without a car, traffic reports held little value for me. If I were outside of New York, I am sure that this service could be a godsend.

Looking at the future: the other contenders

Internetspeech and bevocal seem to be aimed at the same market. They both plan to offer similar services. InternetSpeech seems to go a step farther by trying to capture an audience that will be able to say a URL and get what’s on that page read to them. This could be interesting but can get kludgey as the example on their site shows. Going to Yahoo means that their service will read the links but also shows that it doesn’t know how to stop on a particular link.

However, a somewhat more promising concept is that of 888Telsurf, which plans to not only offer information but also access to an online calendar and address book as well as over the phone reading of emails. Advertising revenues will finance their service, like the others. Unfortunately, none of those services are available now nor do they have announced launch dates.

Where is it all going?

Obviously, those services do not plan to stand still. Each of them is trying to establish a beachfront as the new “portal” to the Internet. I personally believe that a lot of those will end up either being acquired or striking significant relationships with the current group of already existing portals. Ultimately, all of them will have to follow the lead of 888telsurf by offering email, address book and calendars as part of their standard package.

While they are all squarely aimed at the consumer market, I think that at least one of them will break away and start offering the technology as a software offering, allowing corporations to set up private intranets with dial in interfaces. For example, one could be able to call into the main office to get part numbers on something they are selling, or check the latest sales statistics for a particular region.

Another potential use for the technology developed here is in the Ecommerce arena. Why not use that technology to offer a call-in service for ordering. Wanna get that new book from Amazon.com? Why not call 1-800-AMAZON (or whatever their number will be) and order it via phone. This could go over the scare hurdle that some people still have about online commerce.Or at least, it will give it a new dimension.

The other thing that could help those offerings become more popular would be the integration of comparative shopping features. I can see myself in a store, looking at prices on a particular item I want to buy, then pulling out my phone to check if someone will offer the same item for less.

Either way they play it, I think that this group of companies will present the first serious challenge to WAP, unless more content providers start offering WAP-enabled content (at current time, the selection is fairly weak).

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