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Palm takes first step toward voice recognition

Owners of the popular handhelds will soon be able to access information over the phone, marking the company's first steps toward bringing voice recognition to the devices.

Palm owners will soon be able to access their calendar information over the phone, marking the company's first steps toward bringing voice recognition to the popular handheld computers.

Palm today announced a partnership with SpeechWorks that will provide phone-based access to scheduling information stored online through Palm's AnyDay service. Palm acquired online calendar company AnyDay.com earlier this year.

The merit of speech recognition for personal digital assistants (PDAs) has been debated for the last few years, as some of the technical limitations fade from prominence and the line between PDAs and cell phones blurs. This early step toward incorporating voice technology into the device itself indicates that Palm is moving steadily down this path, analysts say.

Palm and AnyDay representatives were unavailable for comment. Financial details of the SpeechWorks partnership were not released.

"These kinds of services help extend the value of what was originally a PIM (personal information management) tool," said Mike McGuire, a mobile device analyst with Dataquest. "The challenge is how to extend the value without turning it into a notebook."

Starting in the first quarter of 2001, Palm users will be able to listen to their daily schedule, address book and personal reminders. Eventually, people will be able to more actively manage their information, making appointments or adding contacts to their address database over the phone.

The information is stored on the AnyDay Web site, which synchronizes with the Palm device to reflect any changes made either through the Web site or on the Palm.

SpeechWorks, which went public in an initial offering last month, provides similar services to United Airlines, Federal Express and MapQuest.com, according to Leah Lesser, a spokeswoman for Boston-based SpeechWorks.

"Ultimately, this is one of several ways we will work with Palm," Lesser said, adding that eventually the phone service could access any information stored on a Palm device. "Right now we're focusing on AnyDay content, which is schedule information."

Speech recognition has been pondered as a potential data input method for Palm devices for years, mainly because other types of data input--including using a stylus to tap out letters on a software keyboard, buying an add-on keyboard, or using handwriting recognition--have not cut it as handhelds have taken on more applications and features.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm is showing signs that it may be pursuing voice control for its future devices. Incremental voice services will be added to the AnyDay calendar application, the company said in a statement, and next-generation devices are expected to support speech technology.

Upcoming processors may support voice technology more smoothly than the current hardware used in Palms. The company is expected to replace the Motorola Dragonball processor in its higher-end devices with Intel's StrongArm processor, which can more easily handle voice applications.

Palm rivals, such as Handspring and Microsoft, are pursuing similar strategies. Handspring is expected to release a cell phone module for its Visor later this year and has licensed Qualcomm's code division multiple access (CDMA) technology. Microsoft has said it is working on similar solutions.

Detractors of the "talk to the hand" scenario assert that speech technology is not strong enough to work with low-powered devices such as handhelds and that the hardware required to make sure it runs well is prohibitive in cost and size. Further, speech recognition technology integrated into handheld computers opens up new security risks to individuals and corporations, analysts say.

"Security becomes very important," McGuire said, adding that because handheld devices tend to store extremely sensitive personal and corporate information, transitioning this information into a phone-based service may be fraught with security and encryption issues.

"I hope that a lot of these service providers have figured out that there may be a really specific liability if they don't secure this information," McGuire said.