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Commentary: Voice email won't give Yahoo corporate entry

With its poor management capabilities, voice email is a poor choice for corporate email; it will interest business technophiles and mobile consumers, but for most people it will be an "interface of last resort."

Voice-enabled email will interest business technophiles and mobile consumers, but for most people it will be an "interface of last resort."

However, Yahoo's new voice-enabled email service is an indication of the growing demand for multimodal access to email and other digital information, a trend that corporate IT departments must internalize.

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One problem with voice-enabled email is that it is sequential, giving every message the same weight. People who get few messages might not be bothered by this, but those who get 50 messages a day will find themselves drowning.

Not all information has the same value, and in the information economy it is important for the receiver, not the sender, to control the priority of information. The sequential nature of this voice email takes that control away from the recipient.

Furthermore, for most people, visual messages on screen are digested better than audio messages read over the phone. If the message is too lengthy, the listener will have forgotten its start.

As a result, we believe voice-enabled email technology will be useful mostly for the blind or otherwise disabled, which may become a growing market as the population ages. The service also may be used as an interface of last resort for travelers who are far from their computers and who do not have wireless PDAs. Receiving email via voice may also be useful for gaining access to directions, an address or other short pieces of information that someone may need on the road via a cell phone.

Although Yahoo has beaten America Online and the two leading corporate email-software providers--Lotus (Notes) and Microsoft (Outlook)--with its announcement of voice service, this capability will soon become a "me too" check-off item rather than a service that sets Yahoo apart. AOL, with its AOL Anywhere program, is ahead of Yahoo in providing wireless access to its email for PDAs. In the corporate arena, both Lotus and Microsoft are beginning to provide multimodal access to email and other information.

Wireless email and Web-clipping access--for news and directions off the Web--is already becoming popular with mobile professionals. However, widespread acceptance is being delayed by the fragmented nature of the market. Unless people use AOL for their personal and business email, those people must get a separate email box from a specific service such as OmniSky to get wireless email. Voice-enabled email requires yet another separate email box. In some cases, it is possible to have email forwarded from one system to another, but often attachments are lost in the process. Inevitably, important email ends up on the wrong system.

The larger problem, however, may be the volume of email many corporate employees receive. PDAs are an adequate platform for handling relatively few, important messages. They are not adequate for managing hundreds of messages, and the volume of email in many corporate email boxes can quickly overpower most PDAs. Voice email, with its poorer management capabilities, is an even worse choice.

META Group analysts Dale Kutnick, Peter Burris, Val Sribar, Jack Gold, Mike Gotta, and Matt Cain contributed to this article.

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