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E*Trade to offer phone service

The company will offer a speech-enabled telephone investing system that allows customers to use its services through a toll-free number.

    E*Trade (EGRP), an online investing services firm, today announced it will offer a speech-enabled telephone investing system that allows customers to place orders, check account balances, and enter portfolio information through a toll-free number.

    The announcement comes as E*Trade grapples with a lawsuit that seeks to prevent the company from opening new accounts. Earlier this month, the company was hit with a class action suit alleging that E*Trade took on more accounts than its systems could handle.

    E*Trade's Tele*Master, a proprietary system the company claims is one of the first of its kind, was developed by InterVoice (INTV), a supplier of automated call processing solutions, and Applied Language Technologies (ALTech), which develops and implements speech-recognition and voice-processing solutions.

    Intended as a substitute for touch-tone phone operations, the Tele*Master service responds to queries made in natural language and recognizes regional accents, foreign accents, and even people with a bad cold. "This service allows full stock trading and other functions which are all speech-enabled," said Stewart Patterson, president of ALTech. "You just say, for example, 'I'd like to buy 100 shares of IBM at market price,' and the system understands and inputs your trade."

    Tele*Master employs InterVoice's graphical application development tool, which means the software used to interface with callers is easily reprogrammed to take usage patterns into account.

    Because it is a conventional phone-based system, Tele*Master transactions bypass sometimes slow ISP and modem connections. But the service still connects to E*Trade's data and trading engine, which has been under fire during the past couple of months for slow response times and backed-up systems.

    Dissatisfaction on the part of at least some users led to the class action suit, and raises the question of whether the company ought to refrain from expanding its services at this time.

    Michael Welton, manager of international and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) products at E*Trade, insisted that E*Trade is ready for any new accounts generated by Tele*Master, and that the company is equipped to handle a higher volume of transactions. E*Trade has been testing the new service since September, he said, and users have been excited by the "cool" technology. Other users have been happy to enter the market when away from their computers, Welton added.

    Welton said the company hopes to "attract new customers to E*Trade that may not have considered us as an option before."

    The original speech recognition technology, the "recognition engine," is licensed by ALTech from MIT's Spoken Language Systems Group. ALTech's cofounder and vice president of engineering, a research scientist at MIT before founding the company, was responsible for many aspects of the core technology.