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Phone-based Web access spec proposed

AT&T, Lucent, and Motorola lead a group of communications industry heavy-hitters developing new standards so that Web-based information can be accessed through a phone.

    A group of communications industry heavy-hitters have joined to develop new technology standards so Web-based information can be accessed through a phone.

    AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and Motorola have joined forces to promote a new organization dedicated to a standard method for providing voice access to the Internet, via a phone and through voice-enabled software.

    The new group, called the VXML Forum, will include technologies from the three founding companies as part of an effort to build a so-called Voice Extensible Markup Language standard.

    Once in operation, the group's technology would allow users to call up a Web page, and have a program read Net-based information over the traditional phone connection.

    The three companies see their system particularly as a way to reach Web information from remote locations, such as when driving. One version of the system that AT&T already has in use is a commuter service that calls a user's cell phone when traffic information on a certain Web site changes.

    Supporters of the effort include 3Com, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel Networks, Unisys, Dragon Systems, and British Telecommunications, among others.

    An initial specification is planned for release next month, with a final standard scheduled to be submitted to the World Wide Web Consortium, according to the companies involved.

    If communications companies, equipment providers, and software developers can agree on the standard, VXML could allow a developer to build an application that could be triggered to play certain prompts over the phone at the request of a user. For example, a user could request a listing of stock quotes on demand.

    The initial specification will include technologies from AT&T, Lucent, and Motorola.

    Separate efforts, single standard
    The three companies have long been working on similar versions of the Web technology. The leaders of each effort are alumni of an AT&T Labs project that dates back to 1995.

    The three efforts have diverged since the team was split up, but are still closely related enough to make convergence on a single standard fairly easy, said AT&T Labs spokesman Kevin Compton.

    All three companies currently have some applications in operation, Compton said. Some of the more advanced versions, such as the commuter update, may take the better part of the year to roll out to consumers, he said.

    Once these applications reach the market, users should be easily able to check email over the phone, and set up personal Web pages that send other kinds of information, such as stock quotes or sports scores, through a call-in voice connection, Compton added.

    Natural language applications, in which a user can talk to a computer as natually as to another person are a little farther away, but are likely by the end of the year, Compton said.'s John Borland contributed to this report.