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Start-ups dream of a Web that talks

Eventually, the Internet all comes back to the telephone--at least that's what a handful of start-ups aimed at providing access to the Web over the phone believe.

Eventually, the Internet all comes back to the telephone.

That's what a handful of start-ups aimed at providing access to the Web over the telephone believe. With services aimed at people without computers, or who are between computers, the firms--such as TelSurf Networks, which debuted this week--provide services that read email, stock quotes, sports scores or even limited Web pages to their subscribers.

The services are far from a replacement for a computer and a real Net connection. Trying to browse any Web page with pictures, video or even a large amount of text with this kind of interface is still impossible or wildly impractical. But analysts say the services could provide a critical on-ramp for people who need a quick burst of information on the road, such as a stock quote or news headlines, or for people who don't have computers at all.

Already Web portal services such as Yahoo are beginning to look to this telephone access as a new means of reaching the masses of people not online, according to analysts.

"I think this is the next step in the evolution of the portal," said Peter Bernstein, an analyst with industry consultants Infonautics Corp. "This class of company is going to fill a big niche. Potentially a very big niche."

The new services are part of a mounting wave of companies trying to bring the convenience of the Web's information beyond the PC. The overriding notion is that the phone remains the most ubiquitous communications tool in the world, so if users don't or can't find a way to get online, this may be a way for the Net to come to users, according to some.

Web TV provided an early way of migrating the Net to television sets. Now companies providing even rudimentary Web access on the mini-screens of mobile telephones or other wireless devices are one of the strongest growth industries on Wall Street.

TelSurf and a handful of other firms think the ordinary telephone is the next place to bring the Web.

"It's really a mass consumer product," said Ken Guy, a vice president at TelSurf, one of the most advanced Web-over-the-phone services to lift its veil so far. "This is one of the elements that can bridge the digital divide."

Leading the pack to date--although the company has not yet provided hard details on its service--is TellMe.com, a company founded by ex-Netscape employees and funded by blue-ticket venture capitalists Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. Those connections have already garnered the company close to $50 million in funding, far outstripping most of its potential rivals.

Like TellMe, TelSurf is aimed at providing people who don't have PCs--or who aren't near their computers--access to critical information at the drop of a hat. Initially a toll-free, ad-supported service, TelSurf will also charge 6 cents a minute for people who want to skip advertisements.

Users calling the service can have their email read to them, get audio access to their calendar, hear weather reports, point-to-point driving instructions or stock quotes. But it goes beyond similar service in allowing access to actual Web pages--in this early version, it will give people voice access to MyYahoo pages, along with a personalized MyTelSurf page.

That's the wave of the future--though it's still in process. A standard language that will allow Web sites to recode their content to be understood by the voice services is still being developed, and until that comes along, the companies will have to spend considerable time and investment in developing a template for each Web site they want read to their customers, Guy said.

"We won't be able to do that for a while," he said.

But that doesn't diminish the initial promise of the firms, analysts insist.

The Web voice companies are similar in conception to the wireless Web access companies that are now capturing a Wall Street spotlight, says International Data Corp. senior analyst Dana Thorat.

Like those companies, which can provide just a small amount of information on a mobile phone's screen, the voice Web companies are ideal for people looking for a quick, critical dose of information--a stock quote, driving directions or sports scores, for example.

"It's the same idea as (surfing) on a wireless phone," Thorat said. "But you no longer have to find the little buttons on the phone."

The navigation systems are a key to these companies and will likely determine their success or failure, analysts note. TelSurf--along with slightly scaled-back versions from companies such as BeVocal, VoiceMate and even a new service from BellSouth--uses voice recognition software that allows surfers to ask for the next thing they want, with commands such as "Stocks" or "Give me my stocks."

If the companies can make this interface nearly as seamless as the Web's point-and-click, they've got a strong future, analysts say.