The trouble with most mobile phones is that they were made for
talking, not Web browsing.
A new acquisition by Phone.com, the leading producer of Net browsing
software for wireless phones, aims to change that. The company spent $285
million today to purchase @Motion, a start-up that provides technology for
surfing the nascent wireless Web via voice commands.
It's not new technology. But the broad reach of Phone.com, which
provides services to most of the major wireless phone companies in the
United States, will likely help spread the technology for voice-activated
wireless Web access to the mass market.
"The one dimension of information access over phones that is the most
obvious is voice," said Ben Linder, Phone.com's vice president of marketing.
"That technology is finally viable."
Although the market for Net access through wireless phones is still
new, companies such as Sprint and AT&T are pushing services that provide some
Web information, such as stock quotes or sports scores, over cellular phones.
Yet little content is
actually available for wireless Web phones so far, as it is difficult to
reconfigure a standard Web site to make the content accessible over a mobile phone.
Nevertheless, Web companies and venture capitalists have recognized the
growing demand for advanced wireless services as more phones are sold.
Industry analysts predict that by 2002, more than 100 million phones
worldwide will be able to tap into
the Net in some fashion. By 2003, more than 1 billion mobile phones will
be in use worldwide.
To jump-start the mobile Web market, cell phone users have to be coaxed
online. So far, the four-inch screens and telephone keypads that would-be
surfers have to use today on cell phones haven't proven particularly
user-friendly. A handful of companies, ranging from Lucent Technologies to
smaller start-ups, have created software that allows users to talk to their
phones though basic voice recognition features.
Phone.com plans to use @Motion's voice-activated technology to allow users
to ask for email or stock quotes by simply saying "check email" or "check
stocks." Unlike more complete voice recognition software packages that
require lengthy "training" periods so a PC will recognize a user's voice, no
training is needed with this wireless software technology, Linder said.
According to Phone.com, it's a direction that has been borne of necessity as
wireless phone carriers realize the drawbacks of trying to surf the Web by
pushing a phone's tiny buttons.
AT&T agrees. "Phones are getting smaller, and with that the keys are getting
smaller," AT&T Wireless spokesman Ken Woo said. "For some people, that's not
a practical thing."
But there's another driving factor for the switch. Callers use mobile phones
most often while driving, and it's dangerous--or at the very least
impractical--to be punching buttons while barreling down a freeway.
"One of the key markets for this is the in-vehicle market," said Larry
Swasey, vice president of communications research for consulting firm Allied
Business Intelligence. "Once you go into the vehicle this could be a huge
market for actual Internet access. It's a lot easier to ask for your stock
quotes than trying to manipulate the keypad."
But other analysts caution that the market is still new, and that consumers
still aren't getting anything like the content found on the World Wide Web.
Barely a hundred sites in the Unites States, and only a few hundred
worldwide, have reconfigured their content so it is accessible through
Phone.com's mobile phone Web browser.
"There's still a lot of issues with the first rollout of [wireless Web
technology]," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president of Herschel
Shosteck Associates, a telecommunications consulting firm. "The promise is
still a long way from reality."
Linder said he expected to see beta tests of voice-enabled wireless Web
software during the first half of next year.