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Commentary: Voice-portal market still green

The voice-portal market is just starting to take shape, and it's not yet clear which participants will come off best.

    By Bernard Elliot, Gartner Analyst

    The voice-portal market is just starting to take shape, and it's not yet clear which participants--the regional Bell operating companies such as Verizon Communications, interexchange carriers such as AT&T or application service providers such as Tellme Networks--will come off best.

    Voice portals provide telephone access to information that resides on the Internet. The value of voice portals lies not in their technology, most of which has been available in other forms for several years, but in their ability to combine today's telephone technologies with emerging Internet information access models and recent advances in speech recognition.

    The voice portal obtains information by accessing back-end information stores, which may be Web sites or simply databases accessible via IP protocols. The core value of this approach is that the three tiers of technology--voice browser, the voice portal application and the information provider--are independent of one another, thus greatly increasing the range of information and vendors available for each different service.

    Those three tiers will shape the market's development. The top tier consists of the voice browser, which is located in the carrier's network. The middle tier consists of portal applications, such as those provided by Tellme, that aggregate and present information. The lowest tier is the content itself, which will have a wide variety, including information for consumers or enterprises, for vertical industries such as finance, or for those with more general interests such as weather, sports and so on.

    What carriers want
    Carriers traditionally have viewed their business as providing telecommunications equipment and the services that go with it. Therefore, carriers naturally provided the browser equipment in the top technology tier. Now, however, the carriers see greater long-term opportunities in the information that might flow through their networks and equipment. They do not want to be left out of the middle tier, which will become increasingly important.

    See news story:
    Voice Web tangled in telecom regulations
    In the middle layer, regulations keep the regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) from delivering applications in competition with application service providers (ASPs). Nevertheless, RBOCs already have some presence in this tier through subsidiaries, such as the Verizon Internet group, which does compete in an unregulated way with ASPs. The RBOCs will likely be slow to help the independent ASPs because they hope that the regulations will eventually ease so that their service-provider and application arms can cooperate more closely to control the top two voice portal tiers.

    However, RBOCs will likely win that freedom only to face more competition from their peers and from interexchange carriers on the network side. ASPs will eventually have greater choice of carriers to deliver their applications. The key for enterprises developing voice portal applications is not to lock themselves into a long-term contract with a particular carrier. Gartner believes they will have greater room to maneuver by about the second half of 2002.

    The other factor shaping the voice portal landscape is that some application providers, such as Tellme and Telera, will address the enterprise market, while others, such as AOL Time Warner, will specialize in the consumer market. Those markets will likely develop at different rates--with the enterprise market trailing the consumer market by approximately 18 months--and produce two sets of winners and losers.

    (For related commentary on voice portals and other emerging technologies, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner Group, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.